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Review: Blake Lively Steals the Otherwise Middling Noir, 'A Simple Favor'

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 14, 2018 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 14, 2018 |


A Simple Favor is exactly what one might expect from a movie based on a second-rate Gone Girl novel starring a likable cast directed by a guy more suited to comedy. It’s noir-lite, a fitfully entertaining movie that tackles a murder mystery with the tone of Death Becomes Her. It’s frothy, and too silly, but not silly enough to succeed as a gaslight farce. It’s a film trapped between two genres that doesn’t quite succeed at either, although to its credit, the likable cast — and especially the performance of Blake Lively — make it a worthy digital rental or Netflix watch.

Based on a novel by Darcey Bell and adapted for the screen by Jessica Sharzer, Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a perky, overachieving Tracy Flick-like single helicopter mom and widow who also films a Mommy vlog that attracts a growing audience over the course of the events depicted in the film. Through their respective sons, she enters the orbit of the heavy-drinking, stylish, femme-fatale Emily (Blake Lively), a woman who takes no shit and gives no fucks. She is married to a charming and handsome novelist, Sean (Henry Golding), who basically gave up writing after one successful novel to pursue his obsession with Emily. Lively goes full Stanwyck in the role, and she’s a goddamn delight, befriending Stephanie, earning her trust over Martinis, and then asking of her a “simple favor”: Pick her son up after school. Stephanie obliges, but Emily disappears and is eventually found dead, allowing her husband — who was in London when Emily disappeared — to collect on the $4 million insurance policy.

All obviously is not what it seems, however, and Stephanie’s investigation into the death of Emily takes her on a path with one increasingly implausible twist after another, and director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) seems caught in between playing these twists for serious dramatic effect or for laughs. It doesn’t work in either respect, but it doesn’t quite not work, either, leaving moviegoers themselves trapped between a snicker and an eye-roll.

A Simple Favor is essentially a noir filmed with the bright lights and pacing of a romcom, and while Feig is undoubtedly an excellent comedic director, he seems ill-suited to this material. Lively, nevertheless, keeps things mostly interesting, even if she is much better than the movie deserves. Golding, meanwhile, proves that Crazy Rich Asians is no fluke, as he turns in another dashing performance in a Chris Messina/James Marsden role, a guy who can maintain his charm while also being railroaded by his love interest. Kendrick seems most well-suited to her role, and that’s not necessarily a compliment.

A Simple Favor is not a bad movie, just not one good enough to warrant seeing in theaters. I want to say that the 84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes for A Simple Favor is somewhat misleading, because it probably means that 84 percent of critics thought it was just good enough to qualify as “fresh,” though I doubt any of the reviews are glowing. However, it does have a certain comfort-movie quality about it — in spite of the confounding and murder-y plot — that might make it an ideal complement to boxed wine, leftover pizza, and an increased appreciation for the darker, sultrier talents of Blake Lively. That’s just enough for me to put it into the “fresh” category, as well.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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