In this moment and perhaps evolving trend – knock on wood the latter doesn’t come to pass – of producer-driven, profit maximizing and screenplay notes-based filmmaking concerned most with broad consumer-friendly ubiquity than originality some writers would decry as a matter of course (though not entirely without good reason), it increasingly feels like an intriguing rarity coming across projects birthed from Hollywood’s equally benevolent and malevolent assembly line that truly seem as though they’d feel entirely different if creative hands had or hadn’t changed. We may get ourselves caught up in the wish fulfillment side of these “what if’s” anyway without these fears overriding our rationale, simply because it’s fun if not exactly productive wondering if Edgar Wright hadn’t left Ant-Man or what, say, a Wes Anderson film such as The Grand Budapest Hotel would look like with Terrence Malick at the helm.
Without his hands all over the narrative as they usually are, you’d imagine Yorgos Lanthimos’s upcoming The Favourite would appear radically different had someone else directed, and perhaps the same can be said of Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor. Well-versed in the realms of sitcoms and big-budget comedies, Feig naturally lends a comedic edge to Darcey Bell’s straight-faced source material and Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay pitched as a successor to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train’s popularizing mystery adaptations about missing women, though prior to viewing A Simple Favor proper, it wasn’t exactly clear what Feig’s aims were. Perhaps such confusion was inevitably colored by his prior work, but when watching the trailer, it wouldn’t have been entirely unreasonable to expect a parody of this growing missing woman subgenre of pulpy noir thrillers, particularly in how the preview uses Blake Lively’s Emily, the film’s embodiment of the archetypal ‘cool girl’, as a peculiar comedic break from Anna Kendrick’s reserved Stephanie.
Parody, pastiche or full-blown satire; such was the guessing game this two-minute clip for Feig’s film left for discerning filmgoers, not even considering the prospect that Feig actually attempted a comparatively more dramatic affair than is his typical M.O.; his last dramatic film was his directorial debut, 2003’s I Am David. In trailer form, A Simple Favor’s overall identity was its own mystery, and now with its complete 117-minute composition to parse through, it both frustratingly and enticingly doesn’t feel like the veil has been completely lifted. Though the majority of the production takes on a serious tone once the heart of the plot kicks into high gear, there are pre and post-inciting incident tinges of humor played so consciously deadpan it’s difficult determining what the film’s tonal heartbeat is in any given moment, particularly throughout a casual whirlwind of a second half enacting a carousel of guilty pleasure thrills, revelations made at a breakneck pace and character shifts both steady and sudden.
The first half, and more specifically the opening act, plays a little clearer than what follows; a Paul Feig comedy subtly dressing down modern popular mystery tropes, particularly Lively and Kendrick’s initial, respective representations of id and super-ego conveyed as genre and even general male-gaze archetypes, while trapped inside the structure of a genuine thriller. With much of the overt humor derived from Kendrick and Lively’s incredibly immersed performances and convincing chemistry, demonstrating without revealing the film’s hand how self-reflexively steeped it is in convention, there’s a particular comfort at first with Feig’s direction of Sharzer’s script, letting us know there’s enough room to laugh with he and his performers as well as indulge ourselves in a narrative sure to communicate its fair share of awareness and unashamed appropriation. Little do we realize that it’s mere setup for a remaining hour blisteringly filled with as many twists in the plot as it does the atmosphere and stylistic intentions.
For many of the right and wrong reasons, A Simple Favor’s second half is a mindfuck nothing short of blatant, though perhaps also accidental in scant circumstances. Part of what’s inadvertent about it and doesn’t quite work comes when the narrative finally starts expanding Kendrick and Lively’s characters past their patriarchal ideal stereotypes – that Kendrick’s mommy vlogger is equally filled with melancholy and ruthlessness behind an effervescent façade, and that Lively’s cold, calculated fashion company PR director can be vulnerable and emotionally raw when confronted by her past (and ultimately turns sympathetic) – while Feig and perhaps Sharzer’s material still tries to organically inject humor into proceedings that no longer need it. For all intents and purposes, Feig and Co. had sufficiently set the stage for a production that would shift in various facets come its midpoint, markedly turning away from the occasional comedic punctuation to highlight its pastiche in favor of increasing complexities in plot and interpersonal character dynamics, and yet the film persists with intermittent broad laughs that muck up the intent and partially ensure the scene progression throughout unnecessarily assaults the viewer.
Not to mention it starkly contrasts with many moments’ unabashed resolve for trashy suspense, and when both often follow up the other, it eventually creates a tonal vortex that’s difficult to ingest all at once. Though to Feig and Sharzer’s credit, particularly during this second half, the deeper the film dives into darker thematic territory, the more it almost knowingly rejects the typically bleak atmospheres of its aforementioned contemporaries, minimizing the effect any tonal whiplash would have but also, in an odd way, satisfying guilty tastes with its winking back and forth. Though there are portions when this tonal conflict is impossible to ignore, there are as many if not more scenes in which we recognize that it isn’t quite jarring enough to remove us completely from the experience and are, in their own roundabout fashion, absolutely compelling, especially considering Kendrick and Lively’s spirited interplay only becomes more compulsively watchable the more everything descends into the strangest amalgamation of deliberate and unplanned chaos.
Even stranger is the revelation one may come to that in spite of its seeming disorder, or at the very least choppiness, indicating an experience not to everyone’s taste, it undeniably feels like something everyone could and should gobble up without worry of the details. But it’s additionally a film that elevates itself above the sausage principle with wholly compelling characters and leads, including Crazy Rich Asians’s Henry Golding as Emily’s husband, that buck their own trends without a hint of cynicism. Perhaps that’s the ultimate subversion of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train-type narratives; films that actually allow their audiences to enjoy themselves rather than beat them over the head with unchecked nihilism.
(I have the same dilemma with this film that I did MI:6, as I’m stuck between a 3.5 and a 4. Just know the movie is one you should absolutely see.)