Film Review: A Simple Favour (USA, 2018) is an infectiously entertaining, naughty neo-noir, with two fantastic lead performances

If there’s one director that needs a true change of pace out there, it’s comedy director Paul Feig. He started off great making a successful string of comedies, starting from the romantic-comedy hit Bridesmaids to the buddy cop-comedy The Heat and the espionage-action comedy Spy.

Then he hit a big of a snag with his reboot of Ghostbusters, which did well with critics and audiences, but it flopped in the box office due to the incredibly negative buzz from naysayers, ranging from the fandom menace of the franchise, to misogynists thinking that it was diabolically wrong to have an all-female cast to take over the franchise.

So when news came of Feig’s latest project, which was adapted from a mystery novel by Darcey Bell, it looked to be the perfect change for Feig. The trailers certainly hinted that way of a sexy, lurid thriller and even credited the film as coming “from the dark side of director Paul Feig“. With a talented cast of stars and newcomers like Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding headlining, will A Simple Favour get Feig out of the rut of his last film?

Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a video blogger/single mother of Miles; and she is known for his intimidating dedication to her motherhood duties, to the laughter of the neighbourhood. Over time, she comes across Emily (Blake Lively), a freewheeling and enigmatic marketing director, who is the wife of failed author, Sean (Henry Golding).

Stephanie and Emily slowly bond due to Stephanie helping out the latter with Emily’s son, Nicky, and Emily encouraging Stephanie to satiate her wild side. But one day, Emily asks Stephanie for a simple favour, which is to pick her son up from school. But Emily never comes back from work, which leads to Stephanie seeking to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

A Simple Favour may be a lurid neo-noir thriller but it is first and foremost, a Paul Feig comedy; a factor that does not factor much into the marketing of the film. While that may put off people expecting a straight-faced film in the vein of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, A Simple Favour is an infectiously silly, yet very entertaining trifle.

Never having read the source material by Darcey Bell, it is unknown to this reviewer whether the story was meant to be taken seriously or not. But in the case of the film (and the film’s opening and closing credits, which looks inspired by Saul Bass), director Paul Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer have decided to exploit the luridness and ridiculousness of the plot for comedy. Utilizing improvisations, broad characterizations, plentiful twists, sight gags (involving female nudity, which is quite refreshing) and physical comedy to tell a story such as this, it’s a very narrow tightrope for the cast and crew and thankfully, they pull it off.

The cinematography by John Schwartzman looks suitably sterile, conveying the sleek exteriors and facades of the sets and characters, implying the darkness within; the editing by Brent White unsurprisingly brings out the maximum impact of all the improvisations (due to his work in prior Paul Feig and Judd Apatow films) and the musical score by Theodore Shapiro amps up the fun factor and serious stakes of the story efficiently. Special props to the choices in the cool soundtrack, including Laisse tomber les filles by France Gall and Bonnie and Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.

And the cast are entirely up to the task of following Feig’s vision. Anna Kendrick looks absolutely revitalized after the string of problematic films and underutilized supporting parts like in the action-thriller The Accountant, the dark comedy Table 19 and the critically-reviled sequel, Pitch Perfect 3. She digs into the role with gusto and verve and anti-social adorableness, but she never loses her way to portray the humanity of the character, making Stephanie a likable lead.

Blake Lively is a gradually improving performer, whose acting chops have improved over the years thanks to roles in the crime-thriller The Town, the drama The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the fantasy romance Age of Adaline and the shark film, The Shallows. In the case of A Simple Favour, she inhabits the character of Emily with a magnetic, rebellious streak that is fun to watch, thanks to the brash line deliveries, her eye-opening presence and her effortless drinking. Okay, scratch that last one.

And there’s Henry Golding again, so soon after his charismatic acting debut in the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. In A Simple Favour, he’s still charming as ever and he gradually expands his acting range quite well. And special props to the supporting cast including Jean Smart (as an alcoholic mother), Linda Cardellini (as a lesbian painter), Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla (all three as gossiping, judgemental parents), Rupert Friend (amusing as the famous fashion designer), Bashir Salahuddin (acerbic as the police detective) and others.

As for its flaws, the tone changes can be quite jarring for some moments (eg. implications of possible incest) and the plentiful twists and plot contrivances may not hold up to complete scrutiny (eg. extracting bodies, avoiding authorities etc.) but the biggest problem is not actually the film’s fault, but the marketing. While it does make sense and is actually quite necessary in retrospect to cover up the comedic tone, it does become a bit of a shock for those expecting something truly different from Feig.

But it matters very little considering that the film is just so much fun. With great lead performances, strong assured direction and scriptwriting from Feig and Sharzer, vibrant cinematography and an infectiously cool musical score/soundtrack, A Simple Favour may not be the drastic change of pace people would expect due to the marketing involved, but it is still an extravagantly entertaining trifle.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

A Simple Favour is in cinemas Thursday 12th September 2018