Monday, September 17, 2018

'A Simple Favor' Review: Paul Feig's Best Movie is Still Uneven

Paul Feig is a big name director that services a huge audience. His big breakout was Bridesmaids, and since then he has made The Heat and Spy, two Melissa McCarthy vehicles. Based on the success of those films, he was chosen to direct the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, which was a pretty huge flop. Of all that work, not a single one of his films had resonated with me. His sort of slapstick comedy sensibility is hugely unfunny to me. To this day I maintain that Melissa McCarthy is one of the worst bankable movie stars of the day. So, when I heard that Feig's new film was a darker story, starring the always watchable Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, I was very intrigued. And A Simple Favor mostly delivers a really compelling story.

A Simple Favor is a sort of noir detective tale for wine sipping moms. Without giving away any of this winding narrative, this film is about a good-natured PTA mom/mommy blogger Stephanie (Kendrick) meeting and befriending a wealthy socialite Emily (Lively). The children of the two are friends, and soon the two moms are sipping martinis and sharing disturbing tales of their youth as their boys play somewhere in the background. Then one day, Emily simply disappears.

The first 30-45 minutes of this film feels near masterful. The tone is moody, and there is a tangible air of mystery surrounding it. Anna Kendrick serves as the audience surrogate, and a lot of the comedy elements come from her totally appropriate reactions to Emily's over-the-top wealthy sensibilities. And the film is funny, and at first it is funny in a very non-Feig way.

In the early moments of this film, Blake Lively is giving a career best performance. She is in full command of every scene, and you are becoming just as enamored with her as Kendrick's character is. This beautiful, immaculately dressed woman struts across the world's nicest kitchen, and you can not take your eyes off of her. I really think that Lively could have been in this year's Oscar conversation if she were allowed to carry this performance through the entirety of the film.

Anna Kendrick is fine in the film, but she is sort of delivering what has unfortunately become her shtick. She is awkward and mousy, but charming, and to that end she is fine. There are moments that feel ad-libbed, and in those moments it does feel like Kendrick was acting in a totally different movie than Lively, because Lively is largely playing this very straight and naturalistic.

As I have alluded to, the first half of the film is so engrossing and watchable, and feels like diet Gone Girl. It is dark and foreboding without having an overbearing sense of mood that hammers you into submission. But eventually, and quite sadly, the film eventually devolves into something that feels more like a Paul Feig film. The film's mystery becomes totally bogged down and convoluted when it could have been quite simple. In the same way that horror is often more effective when you never get a good look at the monster, sometimes with a mystery less is more. A major character is dispatched in a slapstick way that is totally tonally off base with anything else going on in the film.

A Simple Favor starts off so strong, and so quickly and completely loses the thread that made it special. Scenes from the beginning of the film instantly burned themselves into my mind, and later scenes are so instantly forgettable. It almost feels like two separate people made either half of the movie. It is uneven, but the first half is so good that it is worth your hard earned cash.

I give A Simple Favor a 2.5 out of 5. It's in theaters now!