Thursday 27 September 2018

A Simple Favour

Babe Sleuth

A Simple Favour
2018 USA Directed by Paul Feig
UK cinema release print.

This film is a strange blend of two different genres and one of those genres, the girly comedy flick, is not one I would normally be caught dead watching, in all honesty. However, I saw the trailer to this one and it’s been billed as the 'darker side' of the director in question and, I have to say, it's a curious mix in that it starts off like... and is also populated by characters in... one of those typical chick flicks (in the common, popular vernacular of our time) but then turns out to be a fairly dark thriller in disguise. And it’s quite a delicate balancing act to bring those two things together but I can only applaud the people behind this for pulling that mix off so well and, as far as this audience member goes, quite successfully.

Now, to be fair, I’ve seen some very negative comments about A Simple Favour and it seems to me they’re rooted in perceptions of the collision of genres as presented here with terms such as ‘tonally all over the place’ being used and, while I can see that point to some extent, I think they’re missing the bigger picture because it’s exactly that kind of comic genre camouflage that turns what could have ended up being a fairly run of the mill thriller into something a little more interesting than what other writers and directors would have done with the material.

So, yes, it does come off as a somewhat nicey nicey cover version of Brian DePalma regurgitating Alfred Hitchcock as a girls’ night out event movie but... it’s precisely because it has that veneer of made for TV audience dramedy that it’s able to shine and give us an entertaining and somewhat satisfying ride. For example, the main protagonist Stephanie Smothers, played by Anna Kendrick, as a single mother who runs a somewhat successful vlog and who tries to help all and sundry, is so frustratingly the ‘someone I would never want to be within ten feet of’ kind of ‘nice girl next door’ that I would just not be able to stomach this kind of character in most movies (and even less so in real life). Here, though, as the story progresses, we discover a certain darkness in the character’s background and I found myself totally involved in her shenanigans because the veneer of charm hides a more than capable person underneath.

The plot centres on her new relationship with the mother of one the other kids, Emily, played by Blake Lively... and Emily’s husband Sean, played by Henry Golding. The two characters are worlds apart but as Stephanie gets drunk on Martinis and shares secrets with Emily, she becomes the only decent substitute Emily has for a passing friendship but, one day Emily calls Stephanie to pick up her kid from school before disappearing. A week or two later she turns up dead, her body washed up from a lake with signs of a large amount of heroin abuse. After a somewhat inappropriately small mourning period, Stephanie jumps into Emily’s life when she hooks up with Sean and she moves in. However, it’s not long before she begins to smell something fishy when she learns from the police that Sean took out a big life insurance policy on his wife only weeks before. Is there more going on than meets the eye here?

Well yes. I’d have to say that my one disappointment with the film was that it’s easy to figure out, about a third of the way in, that it’s a partial remake, in terms of the main part of the obvious twist, of a famous Hitchcock movie and, as such, I was waiting for certain other character revelations to be revealed at some point. A Simple Favour is based on a novel by Darcey Bell but, according to my sources (thanks IMDB) there are quite a few changes to the shape and details of the original novel so I don’t know if I can lay the Hitchcockian similarities at her door or at Jessica Sharzer’s, who wrote the screenplay. Certainly, with the absence of certain character details in the novel and a denouement much different to this adaptation, I’m guessing a lot of the ‘homage’ came from the struggle to make it more cinematic. There are certainly references to Hitchcock and also a nod to Henri-Georges Clouzot in the dialogue.

Now normally I would be very disappointed with figuring out the basic twist that early on in the film but, as I said, the shifting tone which darts between comedy and thriller really adds an entertaining element to the film because, in spite of this less than ambiguous reveal, you do get the feeling on occasion that anything could happen. It’s not 100% new territory but it is fairly uncharted and when Stephanie starts to Nancy Drew her way into finding out what’s been going on, it reminded me a little of the excellent, original Fletch movie (let’s forget the sequel, shall we?) and the wonderful series of books that was based on. There are some similarities in the way the main protagonist starts to research the death of her friend, although in Fletch the intelligence of the character was much more overt than the hidden machinations of Stephanie that Anna Kendrick really makes work in the role here.

More icing on the cake is a songtrack which involves a lot of French language pop (including Serge Gainsbourg and Bridget Bardot’s Bonnie And Clyde) and a score by Theodore Shapiro which manages to walk that tonal tightrope on which the director is balanced and provide some good support and enhancements to the movie. The French songs especially come into their own in the gorgeous looking opening and closing title sequences, which mix the kind of moving split screen style montages cribbed from certain sections of the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair with some nice, dynamic typography against the French pop-ness. It’s a heady mix and helps give the film a sense of visual/sonic branding to support the fact that, in terms of genre mixes, this kind of thing doesn’t often get done like this in contemporary cinema.

Also, the cinematographer is no slouch here and there are some great little compositions throughout. All of the houses that people are living in are beautiful and seem to be several pay grades above what certain characters could afford but the internal architecture of these ‘rich people dwellings’ is used nicely to highlight and compartmentalise the people who travel through the space in a way that can set them psychologically apart from each other in certain scenes before bringing them closer in others. There’s some good stuff going on here and it’s another thing which helps glue the two different styles of movie making going on here together and helps the audience accept this for what it is.

And that’s me done with this one. I wasn’t really expecting A Simple Favour to be any good and, given the ambition of what the writer and director have tried to do with this cross-pollination of styles, it really shouldn’t have been. I found it really entertaining, though and I’d actually see this one again at some point in the future. There are a lot worse things playing at the cinema at the moment so maybe catch up to this one if you like thrillers or female centric comedies... this one gives you the best of both worlds.

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