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A Simple Favor:
The trailers for director Paul Feig’s newest comedy-thriller, A Simple Favor, present a film that is fairly easy to understand. Backed by smooth French vocals, Anna Kendrick’s chipper voice explains that her best friend, shown in snippets wearing a variety of distinctive outfits, has gone missing. Lines and frames thrown in here and there suggest a variety of culprits, even giving the faintest hint of a supernatural explanation. In two minutes, the preview promises a lighter, more colorful Gone Girl, complete with winding plotline and morally ambiguous sexual tension.
The trailers oversimplify, misdirect. Feig uses the audience’s expectations against them, setting them up for surprises that aren’t revelatory, but absurd. The story, dialogue and performances work together to push the boundaries of believability, daring viewers to keep taking it seriously and stay immersed in the world until they have to laugh their way out. It delivers on the twists and sensuality, yes, but A Simple Favor is not the movie you might expect.
The film starts conventionally enough to lull the audience into following the usual rhythm of a thriller. After Kendrick’s Stephanie updates the followers of her mom-targeted Vlog on the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively), a flashback shows when the two first met after their sons requested a playdate. The enigmatic, aggressive Emily is a strong contrast to the bubbly, polite Stephanie, and their odd couple dynamic feels familiar. After few of their interactions are cut together to expand the two characters and establish their relationship, Emily calls Stephanie for the titular favor, needing her to watch her son after school while she handles a problem at work. Stephanie agrees, and Emily disappears.
The audience then continues what they’ve been doing since first seeing the trailer and projects forward to guessing at what happened. She could have died in an accident — but that’s never the answer in movies like this. Was she murdered? Kidnapped? In hiding? Could her husband Sean (Henry Golding) be responsible? Has she been dead the entire time? Feig sprinkles suspicion in every direction, pointing towards several theories at once, as the best thrillers do. The audience is comfortable, and when Stephanie starts her amateur investigation, they sit ready for whatever twists will follow, hoping to be outsmarted and surprised.
What happens is refreshingly new. Instead of trying to break convention, which has practically become a convention to avoid predictability, Feig slowly leans further into the genre. Instead of throwing in just one or two cliché details the audience “didn’t see coming,” every generic plot point makes its way into the film, playfully poking at suspension of disbelief with a stick until it pops. Placed in a world that becomes gradually more random and insane, characters that might have seemed like underdeveloped archetypes are revealed as intentional caricatures, becoming strangely more believable as they depart from any semblance of realism. A Simple Favor cannonballs into the inherent ridiculousness of its premise, and as the audience catches on, the laughter begins.
In trying to keep people in suspense, thrillers often explore the inherent falsehood of appearances, building facades for their characters only to tear them down in the third act, reveling in their lies and betrayal. This film absorbs this common theme into its structure, so much so that the revelation comes not from the characters or the story arc, but the nature of the film itself. Despite references to many classic thrillers (Gone Girl included), the film is too flippant to be an homage, and it doesn’t ever play like a full parody either. It’s too busy enjoying the fun to worry about giving criticism or making a statement. A scene partway through featuring Kendrick rapping along to “Ante Up” in her minivan perfectly encapsulates the soul of Feig’s film — thrillers don’t need to be dour, and sometimes movies should do things just because they’re great.
The cast, particularly Kendrick and Golding, play their stock characters to a perfection only visible when the chaos around them cranks up to eleven. It’s too bad, then, that Feig doesn’t fully embrace the insanity until the film is nearly over. It deserves praise for its originality, but A Simple Favor ultimately devotes too much runtime to pretending to be a different movie. It is a great time that could have been so much better.
WhatsUp RI Rating: 3 out of 5