The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Simple Favor

Director Paul Feig delivers something really special with A Simple Favor. I'd be hard-pressed to even think of anything else to compare it to. The film is a darkly comic mystery that starts off like a wittier version of Gone Girl, then gradually ventures into more off-the-wall territory. It's often wildly funny, just not in the way that, for example, a Will Ferrell or Melissa McCarthy comedy might be. And the comedy is in service of a devious plot full of gripping twists and turns. In short, it's a ride, one that invites you to partake in its craziness.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a widowed mommy blogger who specializes in being a “make everything perfect” kind of person. At her son's school, she meets Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). Emily is fascinating – glamorous, impressively blasé, and weirdly averse to having her picture taken. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that finds them confessing deep dark secrets to each other. Then Emily disappears, and Stephanie -- who starts a fling with her missing friend's husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians' Henry Golding) -- becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened.

To say more would require venturing into heavy-duty spoiler territory. The thing to know is that the plot twists grow increasingly bonkers, while still adding together to equal a coherent mystery. Every time you think you've got it all figured out, a new element comes along that renders your theory obsolete. Whereas many mysteries yank the rug out from underneath the audience just for the sake of doing it, A Simple Favor uses its mystery to get at deeper issues, such as female friendship and rivalry, and the pressure to be a “super-mom” versus the lure of having a screw-it-all attitude toward life. The plot intermittently borders on going over the top, but the relatable nature of the themes holds it back just enough.

Jessica Sharzer, adapting Darcey Bell's novel, has crafted an amazing screenplay – one that wrings wicked laughs from the personality differences between Stephanie and Emily. The women are as different as can be. At the same time, they share sort of a mutual envy. They occasionally try to emulate one another, which doesn't come easy and is fun to watch. Both characters are designed to take their “types” to extremes. That's okay because the movie is commenting on the wide array of women's roles in the modern world, as well as how women in one particular role view other women in different roles. Certain lines of dialogue getting at those ideas have a powerful sting.

Anna Kendrick is wonderful as Stephanie. She has a knack for playing adorably dorky characters. Here, she starts off doing something we've seen her do before, then goes in a different direction, convincingly depicting how Stephanie incorporates a few of the aspects of Emily's personality that she wants to possess. It's among her best performances. The same goes for Blake Lively, who is nothing short of sublime. The actress tosses off Emily's semi-disturbing quips with relish. (When she jokes that the best thing she could do for her son would be to kill herself, you feel appropriately guilty for laughing.) Lively is visibly having a good time playing someone so unapologetically cynical. She deserves award consideration.

Feig – whose previous films include Ghostbusters, Spy, and Bridesmaids – knows that the loopier parts of the movie can only work if the mystery is tight and the characters are people we want to follow. He has carefully calibrated A Simple Favor to combine dark subject matter, detailed characterization, and a hint of self-aware humor.

For my money, this is one of the most surprising and satisfying movies of the year.

( 1/2 out of four)

A Simple Favor is rated R for for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.

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