A Simple Favor **1/2
One Liner Review:
This movie is an okay mystery in the first half, but boy does it go off the rails in the second half, piling up the twists until we just stop caring.
A movie that has more twists and turns than maybe any other film, ever. This is a mystery that keeps unfolding and unfolding and unfolding. And that is not a good thing. There is a such thing as too much and this movie doesn’t know it. There’s a limit where if you cross it the audience loses interest and stops caring. This movie goes past that line. There are three parts here, and the first and second one are fine. They are not great, by any means, but they are good enough to get the job done. Its the third and final act that truly goes off the rails. The first act is about the new friendship between two women. The second act is about one of these women going missing. And the third act is where we get the answers. This movie is so by the book, in terms of sticking to concrete times and events that in the first hour, literally every twenty minutes something major happens. Every character has a dark past loaded up with devious secrets. It’s a little too much to handle. Sure, its interesting to have characters that are two dimensional and have some meat on their bones, but when that leads to these characters doing things that are so unbelievable and taking on challenges that are completely unnecessary, it becomes overload. The movie is just okay.
There’s something to be said about a good mystery that keeps your attention and also keeps you guessing the whole way through. This movie is not one of those. Yes, it keeps you guessing, but it does not keep you caring. You see, there is also something to be said about going too far and doing too much, and that’s where A Simple Favor comes in. This movie takes notes from Basic Instinct, Malice, and Diabolique, (which even gets a mention here,) and tries to do them all. And more. This is Wild Things on steroids. A Simple Plan has so many twists in it that it would make M Night Shaymalan’s head spin. And it’s unfortunate, because for the first half of the movie there seemed to be some promise here. Not that the first half was anything great, but it was enough to get our attention and interest.
The movie is based on a book, which was being written and optioned at both the same time. Paul Feig, the masterful comedy director who has a way with female driven movies, (so long as they star Melissa McCarthy,) directed. This guy made Bridesmaids, (McCarthy’s breakout film,) The Heat, and Spy. But he also made Ghostbusters, and that movie was so bad it almost ruined his reputation. Now, instead of going back to the McCarthy well, he’s trying something new. Black comedy / noir-thriller. It’s a good look for him, and he definitely fits the genre nicely. The mystery here is real. It’s the answers that are a bit of a mess.
The movie is about Stephanie, (Anna Kendrick,) a stay-at-home mom with a vlog. She speaks to other moms, through her You Tube videos, about cooking. She teaches recipes. And she talks about her missing friend, Emily. The movie opens with one of these vlogs, where she says that her best friend, Emily (Blake Lively,) has been gone for five days now. Then she says, “for our new viewers, let’s start at the beginning,” or something to that effect, and we go back in time to a number of weeks ago, with Stephanie’s voice over leading us along the way, telling us about the first time she met Emily. We go into the classroom with a bunch of kids and parents. It is international food day, and the class is celebrating. We learn that Stephanie is the kind of mom who takes on multiple jobs at once, including the one she is currently doing… class photographer. We also meet a trio of other parents who make snarky comments about both the teacher and Stephanie. These are not very good people, and the movie has a lot of fun within, weaving them in and out throughout the entire duration.
From there, we go outside where Stephanie is with her son and one of the boys from class. This is Nicky, and he is being picked up. Emily is his mom, and she steps out of her car, into the rain, in a fantastic slow motion scene. We’ve seen slow motion car step outs, where you always start with the foot first, more times than just about any movie shot in the world, and it is always cliched. But it somehow looks especially good here. Maybe it’s the French music that plays alongside it, or the glamorous way that Blake Lively handles everything, even shutting and opening an umbrella in the rain. And now she and Stephanie meet. There are a few jokes here and there from Emily, about how her kid tore her when he came out, or how she has a play date with a symphony of anti-depressants. And she keeps talking about needing a drink. When she mentions it to Stephanie, and Stephanie talks about a martini she once had that was all chocolate, it doesn’t seem like this is going to work. But then Stephanie says it doesn’t have to have chocolate in it, and Emily says she needs backup, and the two are off to the races.
By that, I mean they are having an adult date, sitting around in Emily’s huge house, drinking martinis, while the two boys are playing. And there’s a lot that comes out here. From Emily’s tattoo on her arm to her ring to the story about the threesome she had with her husband, Sean, and his Teaching Assistant, to the story that Stephanie tells about her brother. One thing you can definitely say about this movie is that it doesn’t waste any time. We are still inside the first ten minutes here and learning all sorts of things about the characters. Every bit of information that is dropped here is meaningful. If it’s not meaningful to the mystery, than it is meaningful to the character that we are learning about right now. For example, Stephanie didn’t really need the story about her brother. But it unfolds throughout the course of the movie, (even though it has nothing to do with the mystery at all,) and gives us a sort of side story to learn about, showing us that her character has a dark side. And we learn a solid chunk of it early on, enough to see that she is not the complete goody-goody she appears to be.
We get another vlog snd another scene of the women together, as Stephanie picks Nicky up and brings him to where Emily is. That’s when Stephanie snaps a photo of her “new best friend,” and gets met with a very unexpected reaction. But the girls do go back to Emily’s house for more martinis, (and this time a lesson on how to make them right.) This is where the stories really come out with the girls trading secrets. And the next thing you know, Stephanie is being asked to pick up Nicky again, and this time Emily doesn’t come to get him. Not at any point in the night. Or the next day. Or anytime after. Sean is in London with his mother, who had an accident. So it’s the two boys staying with Stephanie while Emily is not even answering her phone or responding to texts. When Sean gets back home, he and Stephanie call the police and file a missing person’s report.
All of this is within the first twenty minutes. In fact, those first twenty minutes were comedy more than anything else, showing us what an awkward straight arrow Stephanie is (her dancing, her “Oopsy” comments every time someone curses,) – except for her brother secret of course. But now, twenty minutes in and Emily has disappeared. It’s another twenty minutes before a body is found. Then another twenty minutes before – well, I won’t give anymore away. But you can be sure that every twenty minutes of the first hour, something big happens in this mystery. In this is the half of the movie without nearly as many twists. The second half of the movie is where things fall apart.
Let’s put it this way. The pieces just don’t connect. And they don’t make sense. And there are way too many of them. One character is trying to keep a secret that this whole movie is built upon, and yet she keeps exposing herself. Why? Doesn’t she know that the character who she is letting know about all of this could easily go to the police? And then on top of that, you have Stephanie going on a road trip investigating every facet of Emily’s past. That starts with an artist who once painted Emily and had a relationship with her, (played by Linda Cardelini, who worked with director Feig back in the days of Freaks and Geeks.) This is where the Basic Instinct rip offs come in. In that movie, the woman who was under investigation had a former relationship with a woman who apparently stalked her and was obsessed with her. Exactly what Emily tells Stephanie about this painter, here. And so just like in that movie, Stephanie goes to investigate.
That leads her to a camp, which leads to the drunk mom’s house, as the drunk mom tells all of the family secrets (and this is where the Malice rip offs come in.) Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking cool ideas from other movies. Hell, Tarantino does it all the time. But he puts his own spin on everything he touches and rips off images more than he does plot. And his pieces connect. Here, they don’t. For example, the scene where Stephanie visits a camp and finds something in a year book doesn’t make any sense at all. What does she really see that brings her from there to the mom’s house? And we still haven’t scratched the surface of the secrets yet. But we won’t. There’s too much to give away, anyway. Too many twists and turns. It’s tiring.
The final act of the movie is the worst. All three of our main characters are shown as villainous, and in some cases it’s for no good reason at all. When two characters stand side by side next to each other, over a gravestone, it is meant to look like they are working together. Only they’re not. And when characters suddenly turn on the one character who hasn’t done anything at all, and is just caught in the middle of this whole thing because of some bad decisions he might have made to trust others, it just gets worse and worse. This movie has enough going for it in the first half to be an okay film, but it really goes off the rails in the second half. It just makes you stop caring, which is really the worst thing that can happen. Too much is definitely not a good thing.