Ever since creating Freaks and Geeks nearly two decades ago, Paul Feig has amassed quite a career. He’s was one of the most prominent directors on the American version of The Office, directed seven episodes of Arrested Development, fourteen of Nurse Jackie, created the fantastic and underrated Other Space (which was damned by Yahoo Screen’s failure), and heavily involved in the sadly recently deceased The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale.
His feature career has been a bit spottier with a couple quickly forgotten movies before he broke out with Bridesmaids. The Heat followed, and failed to recapture that spark, but Spy at least for me) was his first great film, delivering on the big budget comedy promise that the Bridesmaids hype had sold. Ghostbusters was a decent enough remake, but there’s no getting around that it was a messy come down and knocked the shine off some of his cache. Therefore, it’s only logical that his next film would scale things back significantly from his increasingly inflated comedies and instead head in a new direction.
That direction is the mystery film. There was a lot of comparisons before the movie came out to Gone Girl and the types of films Gillian Flynn has written/been based on her works, owing largely to the previews, and there’s certainly some debt owed there. Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie an overly cheerful, superactive in her child’s life and filled with boundless energy. She’s practically the perfect stay at home mother, good at everything, incredibly sweet, and genuinely wanting to help others including through vlogs (though far more competent, successful, and less cringe worthy than the videos in Eighth Grade). She’s been left widowed by a car crash that killed her husband (as well as her brother) and has just channeled all her energy into being the perfect parent.
Where the Flynn comparisons come in is when she stumbles into the lives of the Nelsons, Emily and Sean (Blake Lively and Henry Golding) who are a far more typical couple of that type of movie. Emily is a vulgar, boozing, powerful, secretive, unknowable blonde while Sean is a writer who wrote one successful book ten years ago and then nothing since. While Stephanie (a former English major) and Sean are clearly more alike as loving parents who dote on their kids and cook, she’s determined to get closer to Emily so that they can be best friends. It mostly takes the form of doing thing for Emily, but when she is asked for a simple favor (hey, that’s the name of the movie) to watch her son and calling her a friend, the movie pivots to the mystery teased in the opening moments.
It starts to recall another recent movie Searching, doing so both in plot as Stephanie doggedly investigates using her vlog to help solicit the help of viewers like you and specific moments that feel incredibly similar. The tone here is far more comedic though, much darker than the typical Feig, but comedic nonetheless. It’s even genuinely funny at that mixing in both visual and verbal gags. The thriller elements are less successful as the story is a bit too shaggy, never letting anything too sustained build up. There’re good moments, but they often get undercut not by the humor oddly enough, but by the plot itself.
Anna Kendrick’s very much in her element, but like Melissa McCarthy in Spy, the film finds a perfect outlet for her frequently high energy, adorable (like watching her dance to the one of the film’s numerous French pop songs), and uptight characters, while also allowing Stephanie to play off of it. Blake Lively is the far bigger surprise as her reputation as an actor is to put it charitably, not great. Yet here, she’s funny and intimidating and almost sells why her character could be such an irresistible allure to others. She’s even called on for more than just the simple quipping, power mom, and delivers. Henry Golding is fine, he just doesn’t feel as alive as Kendrick and Lively who feel far more fleshed out and share far more chemistry with each other. The rest of the cast has quite the interesting selection of talent with Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack (Killjoys), and Aparna Nancherla acting as a sort of Greek chorus, and Linda Cardellini, Rupert Friend, Jean Smart, and Sarah Baker all making amusing appearances.
Any unevenness in the story is easily excuse because even if it doesn’t feel particularly tight, it’s a fun tale full of twists and two great characters at the center. It’s a genre bending film that may suffer a bit from its indecisiveness, it’s also one that for the most part embraces its more unique tonal identity. Feig has crafted a stylish, ’60s influenced adaptation that succeeds as a piece of pure entertainment.