Movie Review: A Simple Favor and The Predator
Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in a very twisted murder mystery, and the latest return of a familiar space case.
The plot of A Simple Favor is practically all twists. Just when you think you've figured out what's going on in this wayward murder mystery, some new development crops up to snigger in your face and advise you otherwise. This goes on all the way to the end, as the story downshifts from sunny eccentricity to dark malevolence. But the movie is also a comedy, and very funny.
The stars, Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, are a perfect team, although their characters are an extremely odd couple. Kendrick's Stefanie Smothers is a smiley suburban mom with a dead husband (shocking details to come) and a grade-school-age kid named Miles (Joshua Satine). She's also a domestic vlogger ("Hi moms!") who beams out food-chat videos to her many followers from her cozy Connecticut kitchen, personalizing the shows with highlights from her own life—which soon becomes more interesting than she ever might have imagined.
Stefanie is the kind of borderline-maddening activity weevil who volunteers to help with every school project or community endeavor. As such, she draws the attention of Emily Nelson (Lively), a very different kind of mom, whose own son, Nicky (Ian Ho), is friends with Stefanie's little boy. Emily resides in an almost ridiculously deluxe house ("This shithole," she calls it), whose living room is dominated by a large portrait of her in the nude, its focal point her proffered crotch. Stefanie has no idea what to make of this when Emily invites her over one day, but she soon loosens up under the influence of many martinis, and before long the two women are telling each other their deepest secrets. Not that Stefanie has anything to match Emily's story about the three-way that she and her husband Sean (Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians) had with another woman…or does she?
Here it should be said that Blake Lively, already memorable in several movies (The Town, Savages, Café Society), gives a classic Old Hollywood performance in this picture, swanning through her scenes in bow ties, faux tuxedos, and slouchy men's fedoras, exuding an air of ambiguous sexuality throughout. You can see why she'd leave a mouse like Stefanie flustered…and a little jealous. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat), working with a script by Jessica Sharzer that's adapted from Darcey Bell's 2017 novel, navigates the picture's shifting emotional tones with impeccable skill, and keeps the many narrative balls spinning in the air as if doing so were no big deal.
The plot cranks up with a call from Emily, asking Stefanie for a small favor—picking up her little Nicky after school. Stefanie does this, but then Emily disappears. Days pass. Stefanie calls Emily's husband Sean, who's in London on business, and he says he's been through this sort of thing with Emily before. Stefanie is stirred to action. She begins investigating Emily's backstory—which proves to be quite strange – and keeping her vlog ladies up to date at every turn. There's a visit to Emily's neurotic boss (Rupert Friend) at the Manhattan fashion house where she works, an encounter with a bitter old associate of Emily's (Linda Cardellini), and a journey to a religious summer camp Emily went to as a child. Stefanie grows closer—and then much closer—to Sean, although at one point an investigating detective (the deliciously droll Bashir Salahuddin) tells her he thinks Sean might have been in London to establish an alibi.
Eventually a report comes in that Emily's body has just been pulled up from the bottom of a Michigan lake. It's a measure of the movie's broad whack-o-rama structure that mentioning this is not a spoiler.
There's no point in bagging on The Predator for being what it is: a familiar riff in a 30-year-old space-monster franchise. The movie is a sometimes-funny alien-invasion exercise with surprisingly unsophisticated digital effects (the machine-gun muzzle flashes might have been imported from 1987, Year Zero in the Predator universe) and a script that throws up its hands in defeat whenever called upon to make complete sense.
Obviously there's entertainment to be had from a picture like this, although possibly not always the sort that its makers envisioned. And they're talented guys. Writer-director Shane Black, a snappy-patter specialist, was an actor in the first Predator film, wrote Lethal Weapon that same year, and has now scripted this picture with fellow genre buff Fred Dekker. Together they knocked out a story that takes us back to the sort of south-of-the-border jungle traipsed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the inaugural film. Now it's the site of a US drug-war operation involving mildly hunky army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, of Logan). After an alien spaceship suddenly crashes down out of the night sky, McKenna pokes around in the debris and finds a nifty-looking high-tech helmet and an equally slick arm-clamp controller. He manages to dispatch these artifacts back to the States, where they're delivered to his Asperger-savant son Rory (Jacob Tremblay of Room), who goes right to work figuring them out.
Government agents are now all over the place. They transport the ship's oddly dreadlocked pilot to some kind of lab facility where they can examine its flesh-ripping mandibles—yes, it's a Predator, check—and they pack McKenna off to a psych ward, on the way to which he bonds with a bus full of colorful nutcases, most notably Trevante Rhodes (of Moonlight), Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jane—whose character suffers from Tourette syndrome and barks out cracks like "Fuck me in the face with an aardvark!," which must have seemed amusing at the tail end of an all-night writing session.
Then biologist Olivia Munn turns up to drop some science on the lab guys. They mustn't kill their captive-for-the-moment Predator, she informs them; instead, she says, echoing the devious cybernaut Ash in Alien; they need to "study it." Bad move, of course. Soon the Predator busts loose, and quickly begins wreaking havoc of a particularly bloody sort—guts are ripped, entrails drip. Then a second Predator shows up, much badder-ass than the first one, and accompanied by Predator dogs—fearsome creatures that soon turn helpful for no reason at all.
Reasons are not something this picture is strong on. The soldiers spend most of the movie unleashing barrages of gunfire at the Predators, undeterred by the obvious fact that bullets have no effect on them. Similarly, in one lab scene we see the first Predator towering over a crouching Olivia Munn; we expect the creature to rip the skin off her face, but no: it just turns and walks away (an action straight out of the Battlefield Earth school of character motivation). And in a later night scene, one character dons sunglasses for some reason, and then casually removes them again.
The movie does convey some new developments with the Predators, and at the end it fervently signals the need for a fourth sequel. Maybe that'll happen. But given the fact that the last franchise installment was eight years ago, there may be no hurry.