Every year around this time, Hollywood serves up a fresh, steamy thriller for audiences to enjoy. Over the last few years, we’ve gotten some twisty-turny stories of sex and murdeR, like “Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl.” Hollywood used to churn these out with marked regularity. The formula was ridiculously simple: Pair up two extremely good-looking stars, put them in a life-or-death situation, and turn up the heat until their bodies glisten with sweat and the sexual tension becomes too much to ignore. There were actors, writers, directors, and cinematographers whose entire careers were built on sexy R-rated thrillers. Much like legal thrillers and hyper-violent action films, they disappeared from the cinematic landscape.
I put the blame squarely on pornography—specifically, internet pornography. There was a day and age before the internet when sexually pent-up individuals had to rely on the movie theater to get their spank-bank filled. Society didn’t have 24-7 access to an infinite collection of sexual content where every erotic itch has a video or interactive chaturbate session to help scratch. There are generations of people whose first sexual twinge wasn’t experienced on their phone but in the well-worn seat of their local cineplex. Mind you, I’m not complaining. However, our sexual appetites being perpetually sated by online porn has had impacts. There’s a reason we only get one or two sexy adult thrillers a year.
“A Simple Favor” is a wonderful example of how to have fun with the genre. Director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”) creates a heavenly world, populated by devilish characters dealing with mystery, murder, secrets, and betrayal. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed single mother who spends her time vlogging. She’s a “tries too hard” moms, who overcompensates to quiet the screaming voices in her head. She meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mom whose son goes to the same school as Stephanie’s. They strike up a friendship. Stephanie is in awe of the amazing life Emily leads. They share a few secrets and a lot of drinks. One day Emily vanishes.
Emily’s husband, Sean (Henry Golding), doesn’t know what to make of her disappearance. The police naturally assume he is somehow connected. He struggles to hold it all together until Stephanie, very conveniently, steps in. Soon enough, she’s helping take care of Sean’s children and coveting everything Emily had and took for granted. To her, she’s living out her vlog-inspired fantasy of perfection. To the outside world, it looks like Sean and Stephanie have orchestrated something sinister to get rid of Emily and cash in on a huge insurance settlement.
There are a lot of interesting layers to “A Simple Favor,” which I won’t divulge. Half the fun of movies like this are the twists and turns that keep the story swerving into interesting territory. It is a great, dark bit of dramedy, and strikes the perfect balance between being sinister and savory.
The closer we get to the characters, we see more of their gaping flaws until eventually they begin to widen and fracture.
Blake Lively is a fantastic scenery chewer—a classic femme-fatale who evokes memories of some of the best damaged goods Hollywood stories have ever offered. Anna Kendrick is perfect as a buttoned-up, desperate perfectionist who has to get her hands dirty to get what she wants. Her online mom persona feels all too real and a great metaphor for the obsession some have with being perceived as “successful.”
“A Simple Favor” reminded me how much I love this genre, especially when there are creative contributors committed to making it entertaining. I like how Feig and company have aired out some of the seriousness the genre tends to embrace. There are life-and-death stakes at play, but the characters revel in the lengths they’re willing to go and the depths they’re willing to plumb. They’re indulgent, entitled monsters of the upper-middle class.
Do yourself a favor and check out this flick.