October 05, 2018

A Simple Favor

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively make for an unlikely pair in director Paul Feig’s schizophrenic comic-thriller A Simple Favor. (It’s a bad title, one that is infinitely confusable with A Simple Plan and A Simple Wish. Apologies in advance if I accidentally refer to one of those in this review.) The movie is based on a novel by Darcy Bell, and was adapted by Jessica Sharzer (who’s perhaps best known for writing several episodes of American Horror Story). At its best, A Simple Favor enters a kind of Kathleen Turner-in-Serial Mom territory (although Feig doesn’t always have the nerve of a John Waters): one in which the world of “normal” suburban people is infinitely more disturbing than it appears to be.  

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, an aggressively cheerful housewife without a husband: if she were a Stepford wife, the men’s association would deprogram her. Stephanie’s primary outlet (aside from over-volunteering at her kid’s school) is a domestic-themed vlog, and the movie opens with an entry from that vlog, in which Stephanie updates her viewers on her new best friend Emily (Lively), who’s mysteriously vanished. Then the movie takes us back a few weeks, to when Stephanie and Emily first meet. (Their sons are in the same kindergarten class.) What unfolds is a kind of comic reworking of Gone Girl, seen through the eyes of a bewildered best friend. 

Anna Kendrick is nothing if not game. And there isn’t another actress who could play this character better. Kendrick first registered as the mousy, most-likely-to-sit-at-the- front-of-the-classroom type in Up in the Air (the 2009 George Clooney vehicle). In A Simple Favor, it’s as though Kendrick is making fun of that initial image of the perky, hyper, straight-A-student. But comedies like Pitch Perfect have allowed Kendrick to loosen up, and shown us that she possesses many layers as an actress. She’s a remarkably hard working actress, and you can feel that in A Simple Favor. 

But the reason Kendrick’s performance works is because of Blake Lively. They complement each other perfectly. Blake Lively is a tall, roving Venus flytrap of a woman, and as Emily, she rocks a men’s pinstriped suit like Diane Keaton at the Oscars. Emily works in New York, in the fashion industry, but because of her writer-husband’s academic career, has been exiled to the suburbs of Connecticut. She derives much pleasure from the fact that Sean, her husband (the dashing Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians), is a fledgling author who, after one successful novel a decade ago, hasn’t written a thing. Emily teaches Stephanie how to stop apologizing all the time, how to push back against pushy men, and how to make the perfect martini (the key is in the frozen gin). 

The movie falters when Emily disappears, leaving us with the task of plodding through its Gone Girl/Girl on a Train-esque plot. Stephanie takes on the boring role of amateur detective, the kind of character in a Victorian sensation novel who exists merely to sort out plot exposition. She discovers a whole bunch of disturbing information about the Emily no one knew (there’s a memorable seen in which she meets Emily’s drunk mom, played by the delightful Jean Smart), and accidentally falls in love with Henry. (Who could blame her there?) 

Stephanie, at this point, is no longer that awkward, na├»ve woman divulging guilty secrets to her edgy new friend. She’s something else entirely, a pawn servicing the convoluted plot. And when Emily does return, the movie is already too far off the rails to be saved. The final third is mostly characters explaining the mystery to us. (Note: the worst part of Psycho is the ending, when Norman Bates’s psychology is detailed to us as though we’re at a court hearing.) 

But despite its problems, A Simple Favor shows us a good time, because it’s just so weird. Clearly, Emily is insane: she breaks far too many gender rules not to be. This is the most interesting part of the film: the idea that women who don’t fit certain molds must be crazy. But the movie loses sight of this idea in the end. As a director, Paul Feig often gets trapped into the conventions of genre. Bridesmaids (a movie I really enjoy) goes on far too long because it’s trying to hit certain beats of the romantic comedy. Ghostbusters forgets it’s a comedy, and turns into a Marvel movie, replete with overlong fight scenes full of explosions and inane dialogue. But because of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, A Simple Favor redeems itself somewhat. The conversations between these two women feel urgent and dangerous (in a good way). The film itself resembles Stephanie: it’s both troubled and turned on by its darker urges, which may be the reason Emily is finally suppressed. She’s the kind of Id-centric character that makes dark comedies so fascinating. Don’t lock her up: let her out. 

December 10, 2017

A Ghost Story

In A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck plays a man who dies in a car accident, and spends the rest of the movie a ghost, donning the stock white bed sheet with two eyeholes cut into it, like one of the trick-or-treaters from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Much of the film involves Affleck's character, besheeted, standing inside his old house, watching his former wife, played by Rooney Mara, as she navigates her unexpected new life as a young widow. The film was written and directed by David Lowery, and its simple and austere plot and filmmaking may be a direct reaction against the big-budget Pete's Dragon, which Lowery was also working on at the time. But there's nothing in A Ghost Story to hold our attention. The film ponders life's big questions in an obvious and dull way, and much of it is simply static. We're left to fill in long scenes of people standing, staring, saying nothing, doing nothing, with our own thoughts and feelings. I like a film that gives me space to enter its world and think about it, but the world of A Ghost Story is drab and listless, and the longer the movie went on, the more I began to itch for something dramatic and over-the-top: Give me an overacted Tennessee Williams adaptation over this dismal stuff any day of the week. The film reaches some kind of philosophical head at a party scene, near the end, after even Casey Affleck's ghost has somewhat faded into the background. A guest at the party delivers a long speech about the meaningless of life. The movie's explorations of these questions, however admirable and bold, is not very interesting. Perhaps we're meant to experience some kind of catharsis from A Ghost Story, or to experience it as cinematic poetry. If it is a cinematic poem, it's from the Mary Oliver school of poetry,  brimming with self-congratulatory observations that are militantly simple and "earthy."

The Beguiled

"Bring me the anatomy book" has to be the greatest line from a movie in 2017. It comes from Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled (and I have no idea if it's originally from the novel, or the first film adaptation of this material, from 1971), and uttered with cold precision by Nicole Kidman's character, who's about to execute her very first amputation. The film is set at a girls' school in Virginia, during the seemingly endless slog of the Civil War. Several of the girls have remained at the school, under the care of its very proper headmistress (Kidman) and the one remaining teacher (Kirsten Dunst). This is essentially a finishing school, where girls learned how to be young ladies. While they do make time for academics, the real teaching that goes on is about the domestic sphere, a woman's primary place of influence and identity during this period. The film explores the ways in which the unexpected arrival of a man (a wounded Union soldier played by Colin Farrell) upsets the very carefully constructed world of these women and girls, and how their own desires come into direct conflict with the lessons they're trying to teach (or learn). The Beguiled is fueled by a subtle, unflinching irony, which may be the reason I felt a degree of cold admiration for the film, rather than genuine pleasure. It's impeccably made (Sofia Coppola continues to prove herself a truly talented and original filmmaker) and acted. The ways that Kidman and Dunst exert control over each other, and over Farrell's character (a man whose moral compass we're never quite sure about), is its own kind of mesmerizing puzzle, and these actors bring out the intricacies of sexual desire and sexual politics in the very repressed 19th century. (Farrell flirts with both of the women, and several of the students; his affection creates a tension between all of them, who have suddenly realized a desire they didn't know they had.) But The Beguiled didn't affect me on a visceral level, which may have been what I was expecting from it, and so the movie left me somewhat unmoved, despite all of its many fine elements.