First things first; I need to declare that I really like Anna Kendrick. I think she is a breath of fresh air in an industry filled with people who take themselves far too seriously. Furthermore, she is obviously talented both as a singer and actress, having secured Academy Award and Tony Award nominations. Yet, despite such accomplishments, she seems to find herself stuck playing the same types of characters and, whilst she often elevates otherwise ordinary material and outshines those with whom she is sharing the screen, there have been few opportunities for Kendrick to recapture the type of acclaim she earned as Natalie Keener in Up in the Air (2009). In fact, it seems that despite her fame having grown exponentially in the years since (largely in part to her participation in the Pitch Perfect franchise), Kendrick has somehow failed to garner the type of roles that would serve as a reminder of her considerable talents. Her attachment to this latest directorial effort from Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) looked like it might just be the opportunity to delve into some darkness and re-calibrate her career, but it doesn’t quite pan out that way.
In what is essentially a lightweight version of Gone Girl, Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers is a widowed single parent and mummy vlogger who finds herself under the spell of Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the brash, enigmatic mother of her son’s best friend. Despite being polar opposites in personalities and their approach to parenting (Stephanie spouts cupcake recipes on YouTube while Emily ends every day with a martini or three), the pair strike up a friendship and, eager to please her new bestie, Stephanie increasingly finds herself at Emily’s beck and call. When Emily vanishes without a trace, Stephanie sets out to solve the mystery of her disappearance, only to stumble upon secrets from the past that leave her questioning everything she knows (which isn’t much, as it turns out) about her friend, using her vlog broadcasts to provide a running commentary on the progress of her efforts to solve the mystery of Emily’s disappearance. The premise invites a dark, twisty thriller, but the finished product is far lighter, with a flimsy plot that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Kendrick is fine in the first half of the film, but the emergence of Stephanie’s darker side in Emily’s absence is not convincing. It is hard to know whether it is the material or simply a reluctance from Kendrick to embrace the transition that her character undergoes, which includes taking up residence with Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) and a subsequent sex scene that is appalling in its inept execution. Having said that, it seems Golding only has one facial expression in his repertoire, leaving us to guess the emotional state of a character who takes blandness to a whole new level. Meanwhile, we are supposed to accept that skolling cocktails, smoking, swearing, wearing suits and luring Stephanie into a lip lock somehow makes Emily edgy and dangerous. Lively is never particularly convincing as the bad girl with a mysterious past, but least she tries. The unravelling of Emily’s fate is poorly paced and plagued by some horrendously clichéd characters, including Linda Cardellini as a tortured artist, Jean Smart as Emily’s booze-addled mother and Rupert Friend as fashion designer Dennis Nylon.
Fieg’s background lies in comedy (The Heat, Spy), so perhaps it is no surprise that some of the most entertaining bits here are those infused with humour, such as Andrew Rannells (The Intern and TV’s Girls) as a bitchy dad. However, this tonal imbalance only serves to undermine any tensions surrounding Emily’s disappearance and, being unfamiliar with the book by Darcey Bell from which this has been adapted, it is impossible to know what liberties screenwriter Jessica Sharzer has taken in this regard. The world in which these events unfold is glossy and hollow and, ultimately, that is exactly what A Simple Favour proves to be.