Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is currently sad, because her new best friend Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) has been missing for the past few days, and as there is no trace of her, no clue as to her whereabouts, Stephanie has to assume the worst. She is a food blogger who uses her experience as a single mother since her husband died to channel into her recipes which she presents to thousands of eager fans online. But while she is happy in this, and good with kids, she doesn't really have any adult friends, so Emily had been a godsend to her, even if she began to wonder if she was being used by her as a stand-in nanny without needing to pay her. Emily wouldn't do that!
Or would she? Almost immediately alarm bells started to ring in the minds of the audience the second Emily appeared, in silhouette, before Stephanie who was dazzled by her forthright personality, yet while loneliness was a secondary theme to A Simple Favor, it was more driven by the ins and outs of female rivalry. It seemed there was plenty of entertainment around this time which pitted women against one another, it didn't matter if they liked each other, but life had become a competition if you were female, and that meant chasing after the same man, or the same job, or the same friends, it could be anything to bring out the competitive side in any number of them.
Whether this was reflective of life for girls and women in the twenty-first century was a moot point, though seeing it presented to them as the norm couldn't have done much for the notion of sisterhood that the sexual equality movement was propagating when trying to erase harassment in modern society. At least director Paul Feig was giving two leading ladies strong roles to play, ones who didn't have to be Little Miss Perfect but gave them something to get their teeth into, as both did with enough élan to make this compelling, though making their characters rivals, the innocent Stephanie against the worldly, cutting Emily, cancelled out a more fruitful course of the narrative.
Imagine if they had teamed up, for instance: there's a scene in flashback which suggests there was a sexual attraction between them, but what if that had gone further than a little light shipping? It was deflating that while the premise was solid, it went in such conventional directions, especially as the grounding the two main characters had was anything but. That opening half hour opened all sorts of interesting potential, but in the main they felt they had to follow the basic plot of the source novel by Darcey Bell, which on this evidence had been dreamt up after a close reading of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the blockbuster this movie most resembled. Considering that had been a substantial hit on the page as well as in the cinema, this was not a bad way to go, but it did leave A Simple Favor feeling derivative.
But, oh, that first half hour, where the wit crackled and the offbeat interactions abounded, so promising that the rather pat outcome with life insurance scams and evil twins couldn't help but be a letdown. It was a film that started at the top of a metaphorical ski slope, but instead of picking up speed as Stephanie went down it, she began well but then weirdly slowed and once she got to the end of the ramp she simply toppled off into the snow, her momentum gone. Yet it was never a total dead loss thanks to Kendrick and Lively, imbuing their readings with that dreaded word "quirky" though never so much that they turned you off, as you remained wishing to find out how their relationship resolved itself. In support there was plenty of talent, from Henry Golding as Emily's writer husband who may be more of a patsy than he realises, to smaller roles like the school moms who are too cool to do anything like be genuine with Stephanie, but make us laugh anyway. It was a film in search of a better story: everything else was in place. Music by Theodore Shapiro (plus lots of sixties chansons).