Director: Paul Feig
15 | 1h 57min | Crime, Drama, Mystery | 20 September 2018 (UK)
Adapted from Darcey Bell’s novel of the same name by screenwriter Jessica Sharzer and confidently handled by comedy director Paul Feig, new comedy-thriller A Simple Favour sees the ever-reliable Anna Kendrick turn into a suburban mom detective after her character’s new glamourous friend, played by a full-throttle Blake Lively, disappears suddenly. I went in cold, expecting another Gone Girl. What I got was more like Desperate Housewives blitzed on too much sugar and afternoon martinis. This movie delights in the naughtiness one reveals peeking behind the curtain of middle-class small-town life, and boasts a shamelessly ludicrous pulpy plot with every cliche given a welcoming close embrace. It barrels along resting on the twin pillars of its game female leads and the audience’s wiling complicity. It really is great fun.
The mystery begins when the rich bohemian Emily (Blake Lively) goes missing from her small American mid-west town, and things get more and more twisty when her new vlogger friend Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and aimless rich author husband Sean (Henry Golding) partner up to try to find out why. Kendrick is perfectly cast as Stephanie, a cliched super-peppy mom who crowds out the other mothers on her children’s school’s volunteer timesheet, and could probably write the bible on cookie making. Of course she would be a crunchy granola-granola-flavoured Youtube vlogger, what else would suit someone so earnest, so willing to share and teach? Always happy to volunteer to shoulder other mother’s burden’s with a cheery smile, Stephanie instinctively puts herself forward to look after Emily’s children, who also attend the same school, and who we sense she’s not very capable of looking after.
Emily and Stephanie couldn’t be more different: the stunning Emily’s Greenwich Village libertine background has now merged with a great deal of money thanks to her husband’s early literary success, and this seems to have left her purposeless (despite a well-paid PR job) but able to indulge every whim. She’s edgy; rocks pinstripe suits and stilettos, and is constantly up for a martini or five at lunch in her palatial house; the kind of friend who constantly drops crazy stories of transgression on you, laughs a few seconds later and denies she was telling the truth, but leaves that hint that maybe, just maybe, it did happen. Kendrick’s performance makes you feel how someone so shy could nevertheless be so drawn to such a live wire. It helps that Lively and Kendrick look like they are having a blast colliding these chalk and cheese types together.
The naughty suburban noir action really gets trundling along when Emily vanishes one weekend after leaving her children with Stephanie, prompting the baffled mum to put the baking apron aside and start digging in to Emily’s past. She starts getting drawn closer and closer - in a steamy way - to Sean too (did I mention the cliches?) as they combine forces to find out what happened. Before long, a whole load of possible suspects, red herrings and dark secrets are swimming in front of the amateur detective: mystery post-death sightings of Emily, hints of insurance scams, and ghostly mansions where haunted parents roam. The sheer amount of crazy possibilities thrown at the audience is entertaining enough, but what really interested me was watching Stephanie develop as a character.
Initially so drippy she gets super-confessional to Emily after half a martini, and is constantly in danger of falling over her own shoelaces even when they are tied, Stephanie nevertheless starts getting more and more confident, even reckless, the more she digs into Emily’s backstory. She even becomes more like Emily, something which forms part of a great running gag in the story. Every time the naturally suspicious detective on the case shows up at Sean and Emily’s house to ask more questions, Stephanie (who has all but moved in there to help Sean look after his kids) always manages to be caught looking like a stereotypical ‘black widow’ murderess. In one scene she gets stuck trying on one of Emily’s slinky black dress because she doesn’t have her figure, ad unable to get the zipper done, she has to answer the door to the cops looking like Cruella da Ville. Kendrick carries this campy black comedy off with the kind of verve that makes you think of the title “national treasure”. The film slyly suggests that maybe the best detectives aren’t hard-drinking morose men, but the kind of people like Stephanie who can juggle making pancakes, memorising a shopping list, stopping the kids from killing themselves, post-producing a Youtube video, whilst thinking up a new health shake recipe all at the same time. Detail oriented people.