I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Nancy Drew” is how someone not very nice sneeringly describes stay-at-home mom turned accidental detective Stephanie Smothers late in the delightful mystery game that is A Simple Favour. It’s meant as an insult, of course, but for everyone who knows that it’s not, that Nancy Drew was a badass girl hero, this movie has your back. More than has your back, even. Witty, tense, and thrilling, Favour is without doubt the most perfect cinematic version of a “cozy” mystery — the subgenre in which Nancy Drew is an icon — in a long while. Maybe ever. I can’t even recall the last time a movie that qualified as a cozy ended up on the big screen.
What’s a cozy, you ask? Cozies are the “nice” crime stories, the ones that don’t focus on blood and gore, the ones that don’t feature hard-bitten cops or alcoholic PIs, the ones that don’t wallow in angst and misery. Their detectives are amateurs, often ones who never even imagined themselves solving mysteries yet discover an unexpected knack for it. Cozies are cheerful, escapist, and fun, even when they revolve around dead bodies. Unfortunately, it’s probably because the hugely popular cozy subgenre of crime fiction is overwhelmingly written by women authors about female characters and consumed by women readers that so few cozies, either adapted or original, end up as movies (TV likes them, though). Or maybe it’s just that the men of Hollywood have been scared off by the tonal juggling act that cozies represent: How do you stay bubbly and charming about serious crime? Easier to just stay with grim and bloody.
Enter director Paul Feig. Feig has been trying to tell women’s stories for years now, with mixed results. His Bridesmaids was hit-and-miss. The Heat was cold. But with his
last movie Spy, he found a winning mix of comedy, suspense, and feminism. He gets it absolutely right again — with a completely different mix of comedy, suspense, and feminism in a completely different kind of story — with Favour. (Although, you know, maybe a woman director could have been getting it right all along.) His first great decision: casting Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 3, The Accountant) as Stephanie. So much of how Favour keeps an even keel as it traverses such wildly emotional and contentious subjects as female friendships, domestic discord, marital secrets, and maternal competition is down to Kendrick’s irresistible onscreen persona: kind but never cloying, smart but a little unsure of herself, able to bolster her own confidence but not cocky about it, stylish but not showy, full of personality but not self-consciously quirky. She is at once Everywoman but also aspirational: we all want to be her, and it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that we actually could be her. Or at least we could be her bestie.
That makes Kendrick’s Stephanie a consummate cozy heroine. As she becomes when her friend, Emily (Blake Lively: The Shallows, The Age of Adaline), disappears mysteriously. Emily had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor: to collect her son from school — their kids are classmates and pals — as Stephanie had done before, because Emily was stuck at work. But then Emily doesn’t come home that evening. Or the next day. Or the next. And she’s not answering her phone or returning calls or texts.
What happened to Emily? Did Stephanie fall so quickly into her best-friend crush with brash Emily that she overlooked warning signs of trouble in the other woman’s life? Did they hit it off too quickly and too intensely, especially for two women who couldn’t be more different, intimidating Emily with her glamorous fashion PR job in the big city and down-to-earth suburban Stephanie who volunteers for every chore at her son’s school and sunnily shares her whole life on her mommy vlog? Could there perhaps have been something nefarious in Emily’s befriending of Stephanie? Or is Emily just the self-absorbed flake and desultory mom she appears to be?
This is based on the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell that has been likened to Gone Girl, but that’s too small a comparison, at least for how screenwriter Jessica Sharzer had adapted it for the screen. (I haven’t read the book.) Serious matters are broached here, and feminist matters — Emily’s admonition to Stephanie to stop reflexively apologizing for everything is pointedly handled — but A Simple Favour is more interested in distracting us from reality than criticizing it. As Emily’s absence stretches out and widow Stephanie gets closer to Emily’s grieving husband, Sean (Crazy Rich Asians hottie Henry Golding), some dark turns and increasing twistedness never impinge on the movie’s bounce (aided by Feig’s unexpected but inspired choice of some sprightly French pop music for the soundtrack). And Kendrick effortlessly retains our sympathy even as Stephanie slowly is revealed not to be the inoffensively pleasant paragon she appears at first. (If there is any cinematic justice, this movie will catapult Kendrick to a new level of stardom.)
We are left for a long while to whip up our own theories about what is going on; I had some that were completely contradictory yet all seemingly plausible within the merrily absurd context. The ridiculousness of it all couldn’t be more purely entertaining. And that is absolutely wonderful. A Simple Favour made me forget everything outside it for two hours. I have to adore any movie that can manage that.