A Simple Favor
Paul Feig (2018)
I suspect that A Simple Favor is a movie you will either love or hate. It’s a movie that portrays some fairly awful crimes and behaviors in what you might call a “neo-noir” manner, but which is also unflaggingly humorous from beginning to end, a kind of black-humor crime story with a tone reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut or more recently Christopher Moore (especially in his latest novel Noir). At the same time, it smacks of Gone Girl, with its surprising twists and death-that-may-not-be-a-death plot. But then, it’s also just a film about two women who are not much alike but who bond as unlikely friends, in a way that maximizes the incongruity of their relationship, with a story not unlike that of director Paul Feig’s earlier Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock mash-up, The Heat.
Mostly, of course, the film plays on the current obsession with “true crime” so prevalent nowadays, particularly among women, and it’s that audience that the movie is chiefly aiming at. But that juxtaposition of horror and humor just might not be to everyone’s taste. I haven’t read the book so I can’t say whether the tone is the product of Darcey Bell’s original novel or of Jessica Sharzer’s adapted screenplay (Sharzer is best known as writer and producer for TV’s American Horror Story), but Feig certainly makes the best of it, as do his actors, particularly the two leads, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect)) and Blake Lively (The Town, TV’s Gossip Girl).
Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a stay-at-home single mom (turns out she’s single because her husband and brother were both killed in a terrible car accident) with a mommy vlog through which she gives advice on crafts, cookies, and useful advice like “Secrets are like margarine: easy to spread, but bad for the heart.” Her son is Miles (Joshua Satine), and she volunteers for everything she can at his school, a tendency that makes her subject to ridicule by the other mothers, and generally gives off the vibe of being a goody-goody suburban mom who wears printed socks from Target, but she has a graduate degree in literature and can quote Chaucer off the cuff (frankly, her Middle English pronunciation isn’t that great, but I was glad to hear it in a popular movie in any case).
Lively, the “bad mom” whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) is in the same class as Miles, is Emily Nelson, a high-powered public relations executive for an important Manhattan fashion company, and dresses the part. She curses like a sailor whether the kids are around or not, drinks after-school martinis and complains about her husband Sean Townsend (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians), a writer who had a best-seller ten years ago but hasn’t written anything since, and teaches at a local college (he can quote Chaucer as well!), which is making it really hard for her to keep up the lifestyle she’s accustomed to, and to keep the zillion dollar house she lives in.
The two women get together one day when Miles and Nicky beg for a “play date” and Emily reluctantly agrees, so long as it occurs at her house and Stephanie will drink with her. So Stephanie comes over for martinis, sitting in the very fashionable living room in front of a gigantic painting of Emily’s vagina that serves as the focal point of the room. Emily is having a great time mocking Stephanie with her language, her morals, and her couldn’t-care-less-what-you-think attitude while Stephanie, who cares very much what everyone else thinks, is in awe of her. And to be honest, Emily’s unapologetic individualism is refreshingly liberating: “Baby,” she tells Stephanie (who like many women, is in the habit of saying “sorry” a lot), “if you apologize again, I’m going to have to slap the sorry out of you.”
Of course Stephanie, who clearly has never been one of the cool kids, seems to want to get Emily to like her (and to not think of her as an uptight prude), and while well into her cups reveals that she actually had sex with her brother after their father’s funeral. Yes, it goes there.
The “simple favor” of the title is Emily’s request that Stephanie pick Nicky up after school and take him home until his mother finishes the little job she has to do. But Emily never does show up to pick up her son. A worried Stephanie tries to find out where Emily has disappeared to, but gets no satisfaction from Sean, or from Emily’s fashion-designer employer Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend from TV’s Homeland), and she ends up announcing on her vlog that her best friend is missing and that she will try to find out what’s happened to her. Her vlog goes viral.
The rest of the film is dedicated to Stephanie’s quest to find the answers. The questions keep changing as the film takes one strange turn after another. Did Emily just run off? Was there foul play involved? Did the husband have something to do with it? Is Emily dead? Is Emily in fact still alive? I can’t tell you any of these things because they would be spoilers.
I can tell you this, though. Some people may fault the movie’s plot, particularly the ending which strains credulity to the point that you may suspect the film is a satire of mystery-thriller films with unforeseen plot twists. What you can’t fault is the acting. Kendrick and Lively are absolutely brilliant in their respective roles, and are brilliant together—the most believable thing about the film is their relationship. Some of the supporting players are worth noting as well: Friend is delightful as the narcissistic designer, delivering lines like “Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you’d know that.” Also impressive is the tongue-in-cheek comic lines from Detective Summerville (played with wry humor by Bashir Salahuddin (TV’s GLOW), who is investigating Emily’s disappearance. There is also a trio of “other parents,” played by Kelly McCormack, Andrew Rannells, and Aparna Nancherla, who provide a chorus-like commentary on the action of the too-perfect and the too-terrible mothers who become best friends in the course of the movie.
That Greek chorus function of the other school parents suggests one other aspect of the film which is not particularly noticeable but is almost certainly intended: this highly literate film, which has characters blithely quoting the Canterbury Tales as if it expects its audience to get the references, is also a film that deliberately employs the forms and techniques of Greek tragedy. The parents are, as other reviewers have noted, essentially a Greek chorus. Stephanie herself is an Oedipus-like character who has broken the sexual taboos involving close family members and whose own close family members, like Oedipus’s father, are killed on the road. Again like Oedipus, publicly announces her intention of solving the mystery at the core of the plot. As in classical Greek drama, that plot involves the use of perepetia—reversal—several times in the case of A Simple Favor. The resolution of the plot also involves (as in many of Euripedes’ plays) a deus ex machina, a surprise ending that seems to come out of nowhere. The only thing I wonder about is the anagnorisis, the tragic knowledge that is supposed to come from the experience of the tragedy, but perhaps the film’s ending, which shows us what the surviving characters are doing now, demonstrates that each character has learned something, and their lives have changed in some ways for the better because of the experience. As I say, I’m not quite sure of the reasons for these apparent allusions to Greek tragedy: perhaps they are there to make an ironic comment on the action (“this is really a spoof, folks, these characters aren’t of tragic stature”); or perhaps, as my awesome wife suggests, they are just there to provide a structure to these wild events.
In any case, there are a lot of clever things in the movie, and the actors are superb. I’m going to give it three Tennysons and then I’m going to go crazy and add a half a Shakespeare, if for no other reason than the Chaucer quotes.
Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922
When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.
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