A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

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THE ACCOUNTANT (2016) – Exciting, Entertaining Flick

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It’s Batman vs. the Punisher!

Well, not really, but THE ACCOUNTANT (2016),  the new thriller starring Ben Affleck as a math savant who uncooks the books for some of the most dangerous criminals and terrorists in the world, does pit Affleck—Batman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)— against Jon Bernthal, who plays The Punisher on Marvel’s DAREDEVIL TV show.

In THE ACCOUNTANT, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an accountant with a penchant for working with menacing clients.  As such, he has attracted the attention of Treasury Department head Ray King (J. K. Simmons) who handpicks agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to track down and learn the identity of this mysterious accountant.  With the feds on his tail, Wolff decides to lay low and  work next for a legitimate client.

Wolff is hired by a robotics company run by the philanthropic Lamar Black (John Lithgow) where their young accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy on their books.  It doesn’t take Wolff long to uncover the root of the problem, and when he does, he finds out that this “legitimate” job is just as dangerous as the shadier ones.

And not only are the feds on Wolff’s trail, but there’s also a mysterious enforcer (Jon Bernthal) closing in on him.

I liked THE ACCOUNTANT a lot, and it’s one of those movies where the less said about the plot, the better.  Not that it’s full of surprises, but it does tell an intricate story with enough twists and turns to keep its audience off balance yet satisfied.

There are a lot of things about this one I liked.  I particularly enjoyed its take on autism.  Wolff has autism, and it’s not shown here to be a disability but simply a different ability, which is consistent with contemporary thinking on this condition.

Now, young Wolff learns his fighting skills at a young age from his hard-driving military father (Robert C. Treveiler) who refused to put his son in a special school and instead taught and trained him by himself, with the mindset that he had to make his son face his fears and toughen him up.  I found these flashback scenes particularly frustrating because the father’s ideas for helping his son are questionable at best, but these scenes work because they explain how Wolff became such an effective killer.

That’s right.  There’s a reason why he has survived all these years working for dangerous clients.  Wolff is rather dangerous himself.  He’s quite the assassin and could give Jason Bourne a run for his money.  Actually, there was something about the early training scenes here that reminded me of Marvel’s DAREDEVIL.  In DAREDEVIL, Matt Murdoch learns how to be a superhero in spite of his being blind.  Here, Wolff becomes super hero-like in spite of his autism.

Again, I really liked the way the film approached autism, not viewing it as a disability but as something that simply makes people who have it different, but no less complete than those of us without it.

THE ACCOUNTANT also boasts a very strong cast.  I really enjoyed Ben Affleck here, much more than his recent portrayal of Batman.  Of course, he’s working with a better script here.  The screenplay by Bill Dubuque tells a compelling story, creates likable characters, and contains lively dialogue.

But back to Affleck.  He really captures what it’s like to be a man like Christian Wolff.  He gets inside Wolff’s head, and he lets us know what he is thinking, which is impressive, because the rest of the cast is confused by his autistic personality.  Affleck nails the autism part, and we see him struggling to be sociable, as we know he wants to be, but it just doesn’t come easily for him.  When he makes a comment that is misunderstood at one point, he quickly quips “it was a joke,” and we know immediately that the line is simply a cover-up to mask his embarrasment.

Affleck also is completely believable as the math savant, as well as making for a cool unruffled assassin.  The scenes where we see Wolff in action are among the best in the movie.  I’ve really been enjoying Ben Affleck in recent years, in films like GONE GIRL (2014), RUNNER, RUNNER (2013), ARGO (2012), and THE TOWN (2010).  Heck, even though I did not like BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) at all, I thought he was pretty good as Batman.  For me, I first became an Affleck fan after seeing him portray George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006).  His performance here in THE ACCOUNTANT might be his best since ARGO.

And Affleck is supported by a fine supporting class.  J.K. Simmons is solid at Treasury Chief Ray King, and I enjoyed Anna Kendrick as accountant Dana Cummings.  I particularly enjoyed her scenes with Affleck, thought they shared some chemistry, and I wish she had been in the movie more.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson was okay as Treasury Agent Marybeth Medina, as was John Lithgow as company owner Lamar Black.

Jeffrey Tambor makes his mark as Francis Silverberg, a man Wolff meets in prison and who is instrumental in helping Wolff get started in his new “career.”  And as shadowy hitman/enforcer Brax, Jon Bernthal is once again very good.  I seem to enjoy Bernthal now in nearly everything he does, and so it was fun to see him here as the man who’s tracking down Wolff from the other side of the law.  Granted, I enjoyed Bernthal more as the Punisher on DAREDEVIL, and I’m looking forward to his own PUNISHER  TV show, but still, he’s enjoyable here in THE ACCOUNTANT.

And I thought Robert C. Treveiler was particularly effective as Wolff’s hardnosed military father.  I wanted to hate the guy, but there was something redeemable about him, the way he saw things through.  I didn’t agree with what he was doing with his sons, but at least he was there for them.

I thought director Gavin O’Connor did a fine job.  I liked the way he told the story. It was clear that opening scene was holding back information, and I liked the way the film went back to that scene later to fill in some plot points.  I enjoyed the action scenes here, especially the scene where Wolff comes to the aid of two of his clients, an elderly couple, when some unsavory characters show up at their farm.

I also thought the ending was handled well.

THE ACCOUNTANT drew me in early and kept me there, with well-written characters, an interesting plot, solid peformances all around, and some decent excitement.

It all adds up to one very entertaining movie.

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