Sometimes a torrid thriller is just the thing, but they’re so rare these days. Do you miss Joan Crawford and Hope Lange and all those trashy melodramas of the 50s, even though you weren’t alive back then? Me, too. Thank the cinematic gods for director Paul Feig, who helms A Simple Favor, a film based on the Darcey Bell novel, written for screen by Jessica Sharzer. You may already know Feig as an ally in the support of portrayals of unapologetically powerful women onscreen. After all, he is responsible for the female reboot of Ghostbusters, which inspired basement-dwelling dude-bros around the country to take to their computers in protest. Here again, Feig brings strong female characters to the screen, this time in a fluffy throwback to the B-movie thrillers of the 50s. A Simple Favor is sometimes ridiculous and goofy, often unexpected in its twists, and always thoroughly entertaining.
Three very interesting actors with equally powerful star quality play what seem, even to the characters themselves, as film noir caricatures. Ahh, but they are all so much more than they seem. Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a type-A Gap-sweater wearing mommy vlogger and widower who has a hard time making friends at her kid’s private school, where she ingratiates herself to the other parents, and signs up for every PTA and school special event. She and her son pay into what she calls the “Oopsy” jar every time they swear. Enter the Louboutin-heel wearing, highly glamorous Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). She befriends Stephanie after their two kids begs for a play date, and off they go to Emily’s chic multi-million dollar modern mansion. This becomes a habit. Every time they get together, Stephanie is more shocked and fascinated by the exotic, blunt Emily. They drink meticulously made martinis, get drunk, and exchange secrets, all while their kids play upstairs. Occasionally Emily’s swarthy, gorgeous husband Sean (Henry Golding) shows up, and he and Emily alternately insult each other and feel each other up while making out. He’s a failed writer, she says. She hates him. She loves him. She pays for everything, she says, including the house she calls a money pit. Despite their differences, within a few weeks, Stephanie is calling Emily her best friend. One afternoon, Emily asks Stephanie for a simple favor. She needs Stephanie to watch her son for a few hours. When Emily disappears, everything starts falling apart.
Activating her A-type personality in a quest to find her friend, she engages her vlog watchers and begins her own investigation. Simultaneously, she’s helping Sean, still gorgeous even in grief, deal with the loss of his wife. The plot, as they say, starts to thicken, and the rest is surprise after surprise. Lively channels some weird, OTT post-modern mix of Bette Davis, Veronica Lake, and Barbara Stanwick, spouting curses, manipulating and commanding those around her like an alpha she-wolf. She might at any moment either stick her tongue into or rip open your throat. As traditionally beautiful as Lively is, it’s easy to forget she can actually act, and here Feig and the script give her ample opportunity to serve up a really memorable character while giving it her own style.
Anyone who has followed Kendrick’s career will remember the star-making turn in her first movie as Fritzi in Camp, where the bad-stabbing ingenue shows her dark side singing a rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch”. Her role as Stephanie reminds me of Fritzi, as well as the many times in her career Kendrick has believably built and served up a complicated, unusual character. Her comedic timing and her chemistry playing against Lively and Golding keep the audience’s attention, as well as their support for her, well anchored. For his part, Golding, who, with no formal training as an actor, has been thrust into superstardom with his co-starring role in Crazy Rich Asians, shows he can more than keep up with these two relative veterans. He also has the charisma to match them, scene for scene.
Those who deride the film as trashy are completely missing the point. Of course it’s trashy. Praise Goddess for that. It’s a delight to watch this tonal mashup of a comedy and psychological thriller, the likes of which haven’t been available at the theater for way too long, especially with women as leads. It’s like The Girl on the Train, only without making the viewers want to roll up into a ball, or wash their hands like Lady Macbeth. Good, bad, or both, these are the female characters you never knew you needed. More, please.