Genre-crossover movies can be delightful. Red Sun is a brilliant Samurai Western. Black martial arts films like The Last Dragon or Game of Death are blessings in video form. Noir might be the most successful crossover genre of the bunch. Mixed with sci-fi, we get Blade Runner. With teen drama, Brick. With ’90s alt-psychological cool, Memento. But what do you get if you mix noir with Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks, and the new Ghostbusters? The result is A Simple Favor, a deeply confused movie that feels like a mash-up of Mean Girls and an episode of Law and Order.
Starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, the movie’s site calls it a “stylish thriller,” which is the kind of thing that nobody ever says in real life but that appears on the back cover of bad books all the time (the film is adapted from a novel by Darcey Bell). The trailer’s ambience is chilly, tense. I expected something Gone Girl-esque, a mystery to really get one’s teeth into.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the movie opened with the jolly soundtrack of the French version of Andy Williams’s “Music to Watch Girls By.” Was this to be some kind of swinging, Truffaut-esque quasi-noir? A charmingly funny mystery? The sudden cut to a school drop-off scene is a formal jolt, propelling us into an apparently completely different film and immediately auguring the film’s confusion.
Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, an awkward mommy-vlogger who speaks large quantities of plot exposition into her recipe videos. Lively is Emily, her extremely fashionable, martini-swilling new friend. The other moms at school loathe Stephanie for her goodie-two-shoes ways, and envy Emily for her fancy job in public relations. The very funny Andrew Rannells, a bitchy parent at the school, figures that Emily is just using Stephanie as a free babysitter. He delivers zingy asides throughout the movie, a bit of script decoration that leavens its grind significantly.
Against the odds, the two become close, swapping confessions over afternoon drinking sessions. Then, after asking Stephanie for the “simple favor” of picking up her kid from school, Emily disappears. This is where both the genre styling and the story truly dissolve into insanity. Stephanie becomes a detective figure, looping in her ever-increasing vlog audience as she follows the clues to where Emily might be. She also takes up with Emily’s left-behind husband Sean, played with incredible limpness by Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians). Our sympathies are therefore compromised, to put it mildly.
Stephanie starts delving into Emily’s past, interviewing people she’s known and putting together a picture of her family. As she does so, Kendrick’s character becomes less and less coherent. In one scene, she raps along to MOP’s “Ante Up” while driving, flushed with a bit of sleuthing success. It’s unclear whether this scene is supposed to be funny. Kendrick, who looks so anxious throughout the whole thing, seems to share the audience’s bewilderment.
A Simple Favor is littered with similar flashes of humor that don’t reconcile with the rest of the movie’s tone. An artist who once painted Emily calls her a “knockoff dyke Mapplethorpe.” That’s funny! But she’s also delivering ominous information about her old subject, which takes all the fun out of the scene. Likewise, Kendrick’s role is clearly supposed to be a comic turn—she hangs a hideously Pinterest-ish painting of a lemon tree in Emily’s home once she starts dating her husband—but her backstory is truly, ickily dark.
As each bizarre revelation layers over the last, it becomes clear that the problem with A Simple Favor is not really the inconsistent styling (sixties cool, but make it ... YouTube?) or the TV-paced humor, but the poor plot underpinning it all. This story makes no sense, and Feig has packaged it inside a patchwork of styles that amplifies rather than conceals the movie’s problems.
The classic examples of comic noir are the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple and Fargo. Other such disparate films as Fight Club, Arsenic and Old Lace, Hot Fuzz, and The Grifters all slot into the same genre. The key to each of these fine movies is a sense of romance at the heart. They use noir as a formal container for innovative story-telling, introducing new ingredients to a familiar visual style. But for comic noir to work, we have to buy into the characters’ desire to find the pot of gold at the end of the mystery. We have to be in the hunt with them.
This is where A Simple Favor falls down. Lively’s performance as Emily is authentically funny, a refreshing turn for an actress whose last memorable role was as a glistening butt in The Shallows. But she and Kendrick read like characters from two completely different films, with Golding as an extra from some other, much worse flick. A Simple Favor simply fails to leave the audience rooting for anybody in particular, unless you can be on the side of Blake Lively’s magnificent wardrobe. When a pair of trousers steals your movie, you’re in the kind of pickle that no plot twist can redeem.