People have been tossing around the word ‘Hitchcockian’ to describe “A Simple Favor”, the new mystery thriller/comedy based on the book of the same name. I agree with these people, to an extent—the extent being that Alfred Hitchcock also made movies with mysteries and thrills. Reviewing this movie puts me in the undesirable position of having to adjust my monocle, set down my martini, and declare that Paul Feig of “Bridesmaids” fame does little to deserve a label that recalls one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.
But that sounds rather pretentious, doesn’t it? To be fair, Paul Feig makes Paul Feig movies, and Alfred Hitchcock makes what Alfred Hitchcock presents. Comparing the two would be comparing apples to oranges. But to be more than fair, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer knew what they were doing when they altered the plot of the book to more closely resemble Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”. They’re playing with fire in the thriller house. That doesn’t mean “A Simple Favor” should be judged on Hitchcockian terms, but using ol’ Alfred as a benchmark will help us find out if this favor is too much to ask.
Like the book it was based on, “A Simple Favor” follows mommy blogger Stephanie as she searches for her best friend Emily, who has gone mysteriously missing from her lavish life. ‘Best friend’, despite Stephanie’s affinity for the term, is a bit of a misnomer. They’ve only known each other for a few weeks and have quite opposing personalities: Stephanie is a perky perfectionist and perfect parent; Emily is a woeful working woman with a web of secrets.
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively’s committed performances are the best things about the movie. Despite the static nature of their characters—the screenplay gives each of them a bundle of distinctive traits and doesn’t burden them with reasons to grow—they enliven the movie a great deal. Kendrick bleeds energy and enthusiasm while Lively bleeds style and sleaze, and together they keep the heart of “A Simple Favor” pumping.
Paul Feig almost certainly treated these actresses better than Hitchcock treated his leading ladies, but Feig could’ve taken some notes from Hitch on how to direct a mystery thriller. Hitchcock knew how to pace a movie, letting moments sit and forcing the audience to stew in their own apprehension. He dealt in long pans that slowly drip-fed his viewers until they had to swallow a dose of fear, or in fixed shots that refused to budge until horror reared its ugly head. From the opening scene, “A Simple Favor” is paced like it was pumped full of caffeine and cocaine. Watching it speed through its story is akin to listening to a run-on sentence for two hours.
It’s hard to build tension when the movie blows by like a CliffsNotes version of the novel. A good mystery/thriller needs suspense to build tension, but “A Simple Favor” only has surprise. Hitchcock once described the difference between suspense and surprise like this: surprise is two people having a conversation when suddenly a bomb goes off under their table; suspense is watching two people have a conversation and knowing that there’s a live bomb under their table. “A Simple Favor” doesn’t build to its twists so much as it explodes them in your face periodically. Watching Kendrick and Lively navigate the twists is entertaining enough, but it’s bereft of tension.
Of course, the movie’s comedic bent can’t be ignored. Feig brings the laughs to the outlandish parts of “A Simple Favor”, and the hilarity is more fun than the mystery. It’s just a shame that these elements feel like separate movies: whenever the tone pivots to comedy, it comes off as “A Simple Favor” suddenly parodying itself. Screenwriter Sharzer is clearly in love with the mystery/thriller genre and Feig is a comedy wizard, but this collaboration just offers half-baked versions of both.