American cinema simply cannot get enough of the industry tax haven that is Canada. If you look hard enough in the background of a film shot in Canada, but set in America, chances are you might catch a glimpse of a familiar landmark, or maybe even the occasional Pizza Pizza.
While Paul Feig’s 2018 film A Simple Favour lacks any Pizza Pizza cameo (that I know of), I did spot the occasional Toronto landmark, much to my own childish delight. Recognisable landmarks aside, Feig’s black comedy/mystery thriller delivers its own brand of sinister delight with a distinctive blend of mysterious intrigue and Feig’s trademark irreverent humour. It’s just too bad the film peaks too early in the latter, devolving into a classic case of Occam’s razor.
A Simple Favour centres on widow Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), an overactive mother who runs a vlog out of her kitchen. Stephanie is a lonely woman whose constant participation in school events makes her unpopular with the other parents, that is until she meets Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the abrasive and foul-mouthed mother of her son’s friend Nicky. After a play date the two mothers become best friends, until one day Emily inexplicably vanishes, beginning a mystery that Stephanie feels compelled to solve.
Feig is renowned for his ability in comedic direction, which emphatically shows early on in A Simple Favour, primarily through Lively’s on-point performance, who channels a quippy energy curiously similar to characters out of which her husband Ryan Reynolds has made a career. The contrasting chemistry between Lively and the equally impressive Kendrick is one of the true highlights of the film, making for a promising start as the film lays foundations for its upcoming murder mystery.
What’s more impressive though, is that Feig shows a surprisingly deft capacity for balancing the comedy with the film’s more dramatic moments, which carry an emotional weight unseen in his previous works. While Emily’s character has her moments in this regard, and Lively certainly steps up to the plate, it is Kendrick who truly shines here, as Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay offers her well-placed moments to flesh out the tragedy at the root of her character.
Then Emily goes missing, and so too does the film’s sense of identity. For starters, the core element of the film’s comedy–Stephanie and Emily’s unlikely friendship–is stripped away, hinging the remainder of the film on the strength of its mystery, because its thriller aspect is light on…well, thrills.
While the breadcrumbs are well-laid, the manner by which the mystery unfolds is problematic by virtue of its heavy-handed foreshadowing. Sure, I explored the various possibilities with a sense of engagement, but it turned out that my go-to explanation was indeed the correct one, deflating much of the impact intended by the film’s so-called revelations.
What we are left with, even prior to the bombastic final act, is a film buckling under the weight of its own ambition. Too often does it feel like a cheesy erotic mystery thriller, only without the sex and nudity, whilst damningly deviating further and further from the nuanced black comedy it began as.
There is an abundance of style on display in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favour, but what starts as a promisingly refreshing take on black comedy turns into a predictable, borderline b-movie affair. The impressive leads are left to pick up the slack, and while Stephanie pieces together the scattered fragments of Emily’s disappearance, neither actress playing them can quite do the same with the film itself.