“Secrets are like margarine,” quips Stephanie, the protagonist of “A Simple Favor,” Paul Feig’s new mystery/comedy/thriller. “Easy to spread, but bad for the heart.” It was at this moment, less than five minutes into the very temperamental film that I began to have my doubts. The line is uttered with the sort of relish that should define the film’s twists and turns, except the entire point of secrets is that they aren’t spread. Was this quip a tell for the silliness that comes to define Stephanie’s character or a sign of the film’s own lack of interest in logic in the face of the visceral? By the end of “A Simple Favor,” the question feels irrelevant.
The oftentimes shaky film is not without its successes. The very best thing about it is its ability to harness the worst qualities of its two lead actresses to dizzyingly good effect. Stephanie is played by Anna Kendrick, whose tendency for officious neediness sometimes manifests itself in characters that are just the wrong side of earnest, making her attempts at ironic detachment feel more effortful than natural. Blake Lively’s tendency for opacity has helped and hurt her throughout her career. It served her best in the in the under-seen “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” where she played a cipher to excellent results. “A Simple Favor,” then, benefits from the way it immediately riffs on these qualities.
Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers (yes, as in likely to smother – the film’s lack of subtlety is a constant delight) is a widowed Type-A mother, who exasperates her fellow parents, her son and his teachers. She could not be more different from Lively’s Emily Nelson, the aloof, glamorous PR director who seems to be a mother under duress. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that immediately feels more expedient than sincere, and things turn from vaguely unsettling to legitimately unnerving when Emily disappears, leaving her young son with Stephanie. The friendship at the centre of the film is one of its largest hurdles. Moving beyond the obvious opposites-attracts chemistry, Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer never invest the friendship with the anchors it needs to seem real. And, so, everything that comes after seems caught between a winking practical joke and an insincere character study. As Stephanie begins to dig into Emily’s disappearance, she begins to grow dangerously close to Emily’s widower and son, and the plot goes just where you think it might, with the requisite left-field shocks thrown in.
“A Simple Favor” presents Lively and Kendrick as two alternating takes on the maternal instinct. Two key plot-points depend on both mothers making a case for their love for their children, which goes beyond the incidental, but rather than a thriller about motherhood, “A Simple Favor” seems to utilise the maternal instinct as object rather than subject. A late-film appearance by a deliciously over-the-top Jean Smart slyly points out the writings on the wall – crazy mothers can mess you up for life.
“A Simple Favor” is content to throw all of its tricks at the walls to see what sticks, and there’s something to respect in that bravery. Let it not be said that the film tries to play it safe, with plots flirting with incest, patricide, infanticide, sororicide, petty theft, children who swear, threesomes and ghosts. Less of these left-field inclusions might have helped to cut the two-hour film down a bit, but Feig has never been one for brevity. Perhaps the ultimate thing working against “A Simple Favor” is that the film’s perspective is firmly with Stephanie for the entire duration. The resulting “Gone Girl” comparisons do it no good, as that film’s nasty tautness depends on a level of icy focus that “A Simple Favor” never dares (or cares) to harness. What’s more, though, is that that film earned its schlocky thrills from attempting to get beneath the opaque gaze of its titular character. “A Simple Favor” suffers most earnestly from never succeeding or even attempting to get into the head of Emily. There’s a nastier and more unrelenting film somewhere within this, one more willing to own up to the fact that its entire cast of characters comprises self-centred narcissists, but “A Simple Favor” is afraid to commit to the nastiness that feels essential for the film to be effective. Even when the chips fall as they may, Feig and Sharzer seem reticent to commit to the complete awfulness of everyone within the frame.
By the end, it seems wise to give yourself over to the heady silliness of it all and just let the chips fall as they may. The film’s final confrontation sequence emphasises its own ridiculousness in ways that demand your respect, if not necessarily your appreciation. The final blow, courtesy of a leaden line from a minor character, is so stunningly lacking in self-awareness that that it made me laugh out loud for its sheer gumption. And, I suppose, it’s that inclination to humour that makes “A Simple Favor” sit so uncomfortably. The film presents itself as a send-up of women’s values but it wants to make fun of the seediness as well as celebrate it. I’m not sure how successfully it ends up being. “A Simple Favor” has enough arch élan, aspirational costumes, and irreverent soundtrack to provide some pleasure. But the entire thing ends up feeling surprisingly dull despite a premise that promises something more.