A SIMPLE FAVOR Review: Perfect Mommy Syndrome
For as long as there have been White Picket Fences and wholesome ideals of the nuclear family presided over by the Perfect Mother, there have been more than enough observers to hypothesize about the dark secrets these images might be hiding. A Simple Favor puts this tension directly into its text by starting from the vantage point of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a mommy blogger, that mode of internet creator whose very success and appeal depends entirely on this perception of perfection. It then twists that vantage point with the introduction of Emily (Blake Lively), a sharply contrasted but somehow even more idealized version of what Stephanie aspires to be.
Stephanie is the kind of adorable dork who says things like “For the love of Job”, to which Kendricks’ trademark mannerisms lend themselves perfectly. The film, wonderfully, never forgets this, even as the narrative’s various twists require her to make increasingly less virtuous decisions. A single mother trying so very hard to be exemplary in every way and appearing as a lame know-it-all, Emily, alternatively, is witheringly carefree and sophisticated. Her crude vocabulary, direct and confident attitude, and effortless style draws Stephanie, and the audience, to her, even as her clear dissatisfaction with where she’s stuck and the cloud of mystery swirling around her created by the distance she puts between her and the world. “A beautiful ghost,” as her failed writer husband (Henry Golding) puts it. Lively is perfect for this part, utterly charming in her unknowability and flippancy. The pair’s new and brief friendship gives Stephanie a picture of a life she’d prefer to have, and Emily’s sudden, unexplained disappearance, though worrying, gives her just that opportunity.
As billed from “The Darker Side of Paul Feig,” A Simple Favor promises the lurid mystery thrills of recent Airport Novel phenomena in the vein of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Itself adapted from one such novel, it certainly has all the pieces to amount to such, between the deconstructed domesticity and alluring, dangerous sexuality boiling into dark and potentially murderous intentions. And while Gone Girl’s luridly wicked potboiler comes more immediately to mind, the film lacks David Fincher’s cold, detached intelligence and Gillian Flynn’s caustic voice and insight. Indeed, Feig’s overt stylization, evident in the Saul Bass-inspired title sequence (remember those?) and French music, a more direct inspiration could be found in a much older film which is verbally invoked; I will not name this film, for fear of giving up some of the game.
The camera gives the impression of being enamored of what’s depicted. All slick surfaces and haute couture, Feig, famous for always being excessively well-dressed, dresses his film up and down to the nines. As a result, A Simple Favor looks far classier and smarter than it is, and could stand to be much much darker. Feig’s comedic instincts bleed through from time to time, but especially as the third act comes to a close. It’s a strange mix of tones and styles - he even shoots in 2:1 aspect ratio, a middle ground between what’s typically used of comedies and more dramatic work - and it leaves what amounts to a bit of a mess. One scene has Emily teaching Stephanie how to make the perfect martini, rinsing the glass in vermouth and throwing it out before filling the glass with gin. You’d suspect the director may have forgotten this first step in preparing his.
A Simple Favor is currently playing in theaters everywhere.