' ' Cinema Romantico: A Simple Favor

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Simple Favor

Defining perfect casting is a difficult task. One assumes there is some data obsessive concocting a methodology right now to quantify movie casting, God help us. But if I was to mount an argument for someone being perfectly cast, I might do so on behalf of Anna Kendrick in 2018’s “A Simple Favor.” She plays mommy vlogger Stephanie Smothers, an incredible name suggesting a burgeoning artisinal jam empire, who opens the film mid-vlog, about to recite a recipe for all her followers only to first provide an update about the seemingly tragic disappearance of her best friend, a quick window into the film’s genre and tonal shape-shifting which Kendrick’s performance manages to glide through. Indeed, if she’s a great mom and excellent cook, Kendrick plays these domestic scenes with the air of a displaced high-strung A student putting too much pressure on herself, feeding into the film’s eventual threads of mystery, role-playing, even violence. When her character snoops around a Tom Ford wannabe’s office, Kendrick makes it feel not out of place or even like an unexpected rush, really, but an obvious outgrowth of who she already is, like cataloguing recipes and spying go hand-in-hand. And by blending these seemingly disparate tones, Feig elicits the idea of motherhood’s extreme stress, giving it a gravely comic ring, which is truly when the film is best, though it considerably weakens when trying to stretch out its mystery.

That mystery involves Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), Stephanie’s self-appointed bestie, a mysterious mother of another boy at Stephanie’s son school who the other parents – represented by a trio that seem displaced from a pure Paul Feig comedy – discuss in tones of humor barely concealing straight-up fear. And though it takes a lot to live up to a character who hangs a painting of her nude self in her own living room, Lively succeeds, who as a public-relations something-or-other does not curse people out over the phone in the manner of, say, Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder” but with a cool superiority to these faceless peons, copying her speaking voice from the way her character makes a martini – very dry. And that’s how she looks too upon meeting Stephanie outside her son’s school. Lively is eight inches taller than Kendrick, per the Interwebs, and Feig smartly accentuates this difference in their characters’ introductory scene, eliciting the distinct impression that even as Emily talks to Stephanie she is nevertheless talking right over her, and which Kendrick furthers by meekly withdraw into herself. And when Emily invites Stephanie over for gin & vermouth, it begins their dangerous semi-liaison.

Lively’s impeccably tailored costumes make her seem out of time and so does her sleek, modish home, all perfectly playing off Kendrick’s homeyness. And this otherworldliness becomes intoxicating to Stephanie, just as Emily does. Indeed, Lively’s performance is innately physical, the way she guzzles martinis and slings back on her sleek sofa, her cool langorousness emblemized in her vocal fry, which you can practically feel slicing open Stephanie’s cheerful reserve. And Kendrick doesn’t downplay the quixotic attraction she feels, her expressions making clear that this attraction is both real and sort of happening despite herself, like she can’t control it. It’s no wonder, then, that Emily so effortlessly reels in Stephanie’s most deep, dark secret, one that the movie never quite knows what to do with other than use it as leverage down the road, suggesting how “A Simple Favor” sadly trends second-rate when this tantalizing co-dependency is moved aside after Emily goes missing.

“A Simple Favor” is the rare movie that grows monotonous as it goes off the rails, failing to effuse the sort of energy that narrative rail-jumping sometimes entails, each twist escalating with such absurdity that if you do not see them coming, not exactly, you feel them coming anyway, which might as well be the same thing. What’s worse, as Emily vanishes, her husband takes her place in the plot, played by Henry Golding, who between this and “Crazy Rich Asians” is proving himself the consummate humdrum actor, specifically devoid of the devious energy “A Simple Favor” requires. When Emily summons him to a bathroom – twice! – for a kinky tryst he looks like he’s marching himself in chains. Unwind, my man! Have some fun! How he wound up with Emily, I have no idea, but it only puts into perspective that Emily and Stephanie were meant for each other, their bond the delicious hot mess the rest of this movie could never hope to be.

1 comment:

s. said...

This is one of my fav movies from last year, but in general, other than Ghostbusters I really like Feig's movies. Kendrick usually annoys me because of this annoying Perfect/driven someone vibe but indeed it was a perfect casting here