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Film & Television

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

By Craig Mathieson
This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

In the name of equality and the prospect of better box-office returns, Hollywood has in recent years been putting female protagonists at the centre of action films, that most reductive run-and-gun genre where leading men bloodily and invariably triumph. There’s a pulpy pleasure in watching the likes of Charlize Theron fight her way through Berlin’s Cold War doublecrosses in last year’s Atomic Blonde, but it exists mostly as a kind of substitute: the female action star too often replicates the male hero’s trajectory instead of remaking it. It renders the gender switch an act of negation.

Paul Feig’s A Simple Favour is a wholly different action film for women, a battle for supremacy that takes in the everyday language, lifestyle goals and consumer inducements of mainstream society and turns them into a sharply entertaining satire whose elegant surfaces cover recognisable truths. Towards the end it even has a showdown at a cemetery between the two main characters, stay-at-home mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) and exotic fashion publicist Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). But in this scenario, their weapons are style and sophistication: Emily makes a fiercely grand entrance dressed for catwalk control, while Stephanie displays her ease by serving martinis made to the recipe Emily once taught her. This shootout has gin, not guns.

Plainly a piece that operates at such an enjoyably exaggerated pitch must have a command of tone. Across the film, which is in turn a bonding drama, a hidden identity thriller and a bedroom paean to dopey but handsome husbands, the tone has an elastic quality: it stretches through tart humour, sudden revelations, and camp asides before snapping back into place with a sobering sting. It would be easy to misread A Simple Favour as a ludicrous contrivance, but there’s a dedication and even discipline to the way it pulls together such diverse strands with outrageous glee.

Like Stephanie, a widow who is so dedicated to mothering her young son that her fellow elementary school parents mock her and the meticulous how-to mummy blog videos she makes, the movie understands the power – and illusion – of being dazzled. When Emily first arrives for school pick-up to find that her son and Stephanie’s have bonded, the camera shoots her from the stiletto heel up. Seeing a playdate as a chance to keep her child occupied with a classmate, she invites Stephanie over for that martini. In between curtly informing her fashion designer boss to stop calling her, Emily reveals a scabrous sense of humour, and a designer kitchen that makes Stephanie’s domestic fantasies tingle, even if (as Emily confides) it’s left Emily and her husband in debt because they bought at the top of the market.

Such casual confessions are a form of deception for these two women – what they’re willing to tell in order to conceal what they want to keep hidden. The friendship between the prim and practical Stephanie and the imperiously hip Emily is unexpected and, at first glance, one-sided. Stephanie is starstruck, but her everyday equilibrium in the Connecticut suburbs reassures Emily, who in turn gives Stephanie a sense of connection by asking her for domestic help. That’s what happens when Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son because she’s tied up at work and her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), is in London. When she hasn’t turned up several days later a worried Stephanie summons Sean and together they file a missing person’s report.

This all unfolds with quick precision in the film’s first act, and the picture is voracious in the turns it takes and the genres it folds in. It charges forward instead of pausing for breath, much like someone who is trying to present the perfect persona to the outside world might. But the storytelling, which visually shows a traumatic event while characters describe a less incriminating version, also serves to peel back layers of identity. There’s a moment where Emily, fresh from the office in a funky tuxedo typical of Renée Ehrlich Kalfus’ terrific costume design, peels off her dicky to reveal the woman beneath the armour. Stephanie has as many secrets as Emily, and one way of viewing her subsequent investigation into her friend’s shuttered past, which she posts videos about, is as a noble distraction.

Feig has cast the two lead roles exceptionally well. Neither actor has had a part so uniquely suited to her talents. Anna Kendrick, best known for the Pitch Perfect musical comedy franchise, has a comedienne’s timing and a fascinating feel for awkwardness. Every time Stephanie uses a term of female confederacy with Emily – “sis”, “lady” or “girlfriend” – there’s a flicker of nervous yearning to her delivery, as if she’s scared of being rebuffed. You can see their friendship give her confidence, but also how the look in Stephanie’s eyes as she gazes at Emily’s possessions goes from awe to acquisitiveness.

Blake Lively found stardom on the teen television soap Gossip Girl, but disappeared in what were meant to be breakthrough film roles, such as the anaemic comic book movie Green Lantern and Oliver Stone’s dismal Californian crime fantasy Savages. As Emily she leans into her movie-star glamour with such force that the cane she uses as an occasional accessory looks absolutely fitting; when she teases Stephanie with an expletive-based nickname, Emily’s husky voice has a seductive warmth.

Paul Feig has repeatedly had success exploring the bonds between women forced out of their element, directing the successive comedy hits Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. But with A Simple Favour, working from Jessica Sharzer’s adaptation of Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, he starts to pay attention to more than the comic interplay of his leads. When Stephanie soaks in the living space of Emily’s light-filled home, Feig cuts to a jarring front-on shot that breaks the spell and makes you look anew at the best friend who is supposedly just happy to help.

Emily’s tuxedo suggests Marlene Dietrich, and there are other nods to the leading ladies of Hollywood’s golden age, but Feig makes Stephanie and Emily the centre of their own world and gives them agency, albeit shaped by the film’s peculiar dynamic, free of men. Sean, a once-feted young novelist now making do as an academic, isn’t too bothered with who possesses him – when Emily disappears he’s receptive to Stephanie. In Hollywood thrillers commuter husbands used to get into trouble in the city and then hide it from their wives, but this buff husband is so pleasingly self-absorbed that he’s barely concerned with whom he comes home to.

The search for Emily, which naturally turns to the possibility of foul play, is led by a police detective, Summerville (Bashir Salahuddin), who blithely jokes his way through one encounter after another. He is bemused by these people and their incriminating flaws, and that is the same attitude the film takes. By the end, A Simple Favour has nodded to Brian De Palma and copped a fair chunk of the plot from Gone Girl, but it refuses to fold, and refuses to write off these women. The film flirts wildly with both high camp and sociopathy, but whatever the extreme, genuine insights linger, and it provides an ending befitting the intersection of desire and deceit: they lie happily ever after.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

A Simple Favour

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