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A Simple Favor

Even in this day and age, in which no franchise can ever be allowed to die, I think we can all agree that Ghostbusters is now well and truly dead. We’re never getting another movie as good as the first one, we’re sure as hell never getting the original gang back together, and fans the world over have made it perfectly clear that nothing less will be worth their time and attention. Moreover, the influence of Paul Feig in this turn of events can hardly be overstated. And no, I’m not talking about Feig remaking the team into a group of diverse women in an effort to modernize the concept — it’s really fucked up how that was such a dealbreaker for some people (the Chinese government, for example).

No, I’m talking about Feig’s distinctive brand of humor. His rambling brand of comedy, in which actors ad-lib for interminable scenes in a scattershot attempt at making characters who are quirky and lovable. It’s not funny or endearing, it’s just lazy and annoying. It’s a directorial style so invasive that it overpowers any genre and any performance. There was never a chance that Ghostbusters (2016) was going to work as a balanced horror/comedy/adventure when Feig and his cast deliver comedy with all the precision and subtlety of John Rambo delivering 0.30-caliber rounds.

For that matter, this imbalance was also a huge problem with Spy and The Heat. It’s not that Feig can’t make a good spy thriller or a good action flick, because he’s clearly proven that he can — he just can’t make a decent action film that’s also a comedy. This is most likely why neither of those movies ever got sequels. Then again, it worked perfectly well with Bridesmaids — which had the freedom to be a full-on romcom without any obligation to balance that with any other genre — and that movie never got a sequel either. In fact, it’s very rare for comedy movies from any filmmaker to ever get sequels.

And why is that? Because sooner or later, the joke gets old. Most filmmakers can’t keep a comedy premise going for two films, but Feig’s comedy can’t even last for one movie. He has to keep jumping genres in a failed attempt at keeping his style fresh.

So here we are with A Simple Favor, in which Feig tries his hand at a new genre: The semi-erotic mystery thriller. Adapted from the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell (and optioned before the book had even been published), Feig directs from a screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, late of American Horror Story and… ugh, Nerve.

Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a single mother living off the life insurance payout from her recently deceased husband. She’s a naive romantic and a lonely busybody with too much energy and no life aside from raising her son. So she volunteers for everything and keeps a cooking/crafting vlog, doing everything she possibly can in a hopeless and misguided attempt at getting people to like her. She just wants a friend and a shoulder to cry on. Enter Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively.

Emily and Stephanie meet through their sons, who go to school together. Emily takes a liking to Stephanie, who of course reacts strongly to any kind of positive attention. It also helps that Emily lives in an opulent house, she has a handsome and loving husband (Sean, played by Henry Golding), she has a wonderfully successful career, and perhaps most importantly, Emily simply does not give a fuck. She drinks. She swears. She has a full-frontal nude portrait of herself in her living room. Yet she’s perfectly calm and put together, every word delivered from her lips with cold and calculated precision.

Basically, imagine the kind of character Sharon Stone would’ve played in the mid-90s, but under Feig’s direction. Though come to think of it, Stone would probably be willing and able to play a role like this at her current age. That could be interesting. I digress.

Anyway, Stephanie and Emily bond until they start calling each other best friends. Then Emily asks Stephanie to pick up their kids — not uncommon at this point — and Emily drops off the map until she’s presumed dead. That’s about the point when Stephanie slowly takes her place as Sean’s new live-in girlfriend, and that’s when shit gets really weird.

At the core of all this is a genuinely thrilling mystery romp. The clues and red herrings are well-placed, the setups are effective, and the payoffs are nicely satisfying, even if they tend to create retroactive plot holes. We also get some non-linear storytelling going on, with effective use of flashbacks for exposition and character development.

The problem, of course, is with the comedy. Feig’s signature brand of aimless and awkward humor stops the pacing dead in its tracks and robs the film of any tension. This is most especially clear in the recurring chorus of Stephanie and Emily’s fellow school parents (played by Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla), so annoying and useless that they completely and totally deflate the movie with every appearance.

But easily the most notable casualty is Anna Kendrick. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a perfect fit for the character on paper, if only she wasn’t working under Paul Feig. Her persona and screen presence match Feig’s style to the point where they bring out the worst of each other in a destructive and self-indulgent feedback loop. Granted, there are a couple of times when Stephanie confronts her supremely fucked-up backstory, and those moments were nicely gut-churning to watch. Otherwise, there was never even the illusion of Anna Kendrick playing a character, just Anna Kendrick going through her usual adorably awkward schtick for Feig. Even when the character is supposedly developing into a stronger and more confident woman, the character was so aggressively, implausibly, consistently chipper that I simply couldn’t buy it.

But then we have Blake Lively, who actually spins the rambling comedic style to her advantage. In Lively’s hands, it’s genuinely hard to tell if Emily has no internal filter, or if every word out of her mouth is deliberate. We can never tell if she really is that awesome, or if she’s a pathological liar. While everyone else is embarrassing themselves by stuttering every excuse and awful joke that pops into their heads, Emily actively looks smarter and sharper with every off-the-cuff remark. I can’t remember the last time I saw Lively turn in such a genuinely compelling performance with a more intriguing character.

Then we have Henry Golding. I’m sorry, folks, I really do want to like the guy. I think it’s wonderful he’s been getting so many chances to prove that an Asian leading man can be just as pretty and boring and useless as any white leading man. But seriously, Golding has so little charisma and screen presence that the filmmakers would have been better off casting goddamn Scott Eastwood as the male lead. Even Charlie freaking Hunnam might have been an improvement.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Sugenja Sri and Rupert Friend, each of whom gets a legitimately funny cameo role. We’ve also got Linda Cardellini and Jean Smart, each of whom get small yet vital cameo roles in the back half. Not that they were awful by any means, but I found myself disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t go for stunt casting in those cases. It would have been so much more shocking and memorable if those roles had been played by Kate McKinnon or Melissa McCarthy or something.

Oh, and I don’t even want to mention the child actors by name. The less said about them, the better.

On a final miscellaneous note, the soundtrack was dominated by foreign-language tracks, mostly in French. I’m not entirely clear why, but it’s a nicely distinctive touch.

Basically put, A Simple Favor is a wonderful script and two solid female leads in desperate need of a different director. I can see how the feminist angle and the socially awkward protagonist appealed to Paul Feig, and he admittedly does great service to both of them while crafting a genuinely entertaining mystery thriller. But it’s all destroyed in Feig’s scorched-earth approach to humor. The mystery thriller is a genre that demands precision, which doesn’t even remotely mesh with characters and a director who uncontrollably blurt out everything they’re thinking.

Any fans of Paul Feig’s work will find a lot here to love and should see it immediately. For everyone else, Blake Lively’s performance and the intriguing mystery plot make this a solid home video recommendation.

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