A Simple Favor: Darkly Comedic Thriller Has Energetic Performances, Great Twists

3.5 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

A Simple Favor Poster
Image from https://www.imdb.com/

A Simple Favor may well be the most ambitious and outrageous film so far this year.  Director Paul Feig (Spy, The Heat) has outdone himself here, crafting a darkly comedic and endlessly twisty thriller with wonderful performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, the latter of which has never been this unhinged before.  A Simple Favor combines the chick flick, pitch-black comedy, and mystery-thriller with surprising finesse, making for one of the most entertaining movies of the year.  I have decided not to place the trailer here so you can go in as cold as possible, as I did.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

Straight-laced single mom Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick once again showing great range) has two things going for her in life: her devotion to her son, and a cooking vlog.  Despite the snickers of the other parents, Stephanie is cool as a cucumber with her routine life, without a desire to change.  Kendrick is absolutely wonderful at playing this lovably mousy and pathetic character, making her endearing to us rather than irritating.

Stephanie’s life is thrown for a loop when she meets the profane and erratic Emily Nelson (a fantastic Lively).  They become fast friends, sharing afternoon martinis and their deepest secrets until Emily disappears one day.  Now, Stephanie and Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) must piece together what happened to her, taking them both down a rabbit hole of outrageousness I won’t dare spoil here.

A Simple Favor is one of the most memorable films I’ve seen all year.  Kendrick and Lively have great chemistry together, making it easy to buy their fast friendship as well as Stephanie’s determination to find her friend.  You’ve never seen Lively this, well, lively, before, and she is having a devil of a time playing this character.  Kendrick also impresses, taking a character that could have been extremely unlikable or annoying and making you feel sympathy towards her while still laughing at her on occasion.  Golding is good as the husband, but doesn’t leave as large of an impression.  While no one will win Oscars for their work here, these are currently my favorite performances in a Paul Feig film to date.

Feig’s direction and Jessica Sharzer’s script are well-matched for each other, balancing the comedic and thriller aspects surprisingly well and providing something for everyone: A little bit of a chick flick, a little bit of dark comedy, and a little bit of a twisty mystery.  Trust me when I say that you will have no idea where this film is going based on its opening minutes, and if you do, you’ll enjoy how the twists are executed.  I went in knowing very little about the film’s plot besides it being a mystery of some kind, and I suggest you see this with as little knowledge as possible.  Trust me, you don’t want anything spoiled.

A Simple Favor balances its tones and genres easily, shifting from chick flick to darkly comic thriller with surprising sharpness.  Paul Feig’s direction perfectly complements Jessica Sharzer’s script, and the leads are absolute dynamite.  If you want a twisty thriller and don’t mind a bit of profane or raunchy humor, this is one Simple Favor you’ll definitely want to accept.

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language Throughout, Some Graphic Nude Images, Drug Use, and Violence

Game Night: Clever Comedy Mixes Twisty Thrills with Dark Humor

3.5 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

Game Night Poster
Photo from https://i0.wp.com/teaser-trailer.com

In my opinion, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are two of the most likable actors working today.  Both are approachable, charismatic, and make mostly solid career choices.  (Excluding Bateman’s The Change-Up, a study in how not to make a raunchy comedy, and McAdams’ less-than-Oscar-worthy turns in those Sherlock Holmes movies).  Game Night brings the two together as a couple who get way in over their heads with one such night: dodging guns, crooks, and other crazy things that all 40-year-old couples deal with on a Friday night, or at least in this movie they do.  Game Night is a clever black comedy/thriller with solid laughs, some crazy antics, and a standout performance from Rachel McAdams.  May this be her comeback vehicle, because she is its biggest asset.

Bateman and McAdams star as Max and Annie, a competitive couple who engage in weekly game nights with their other couple friends: Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), and the womanizing Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who is currently dating the blonde British Sarah (Sharon Horgan).  The only hitch: Their creepy next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, Breaking Bad), who just so happens to be the ex-husband of Annie’s sister.  He’s the kind of guy who carries his little white dog to the mailbox and has a dead-eyed stare that wouldn’t look out of place on a Criminal Minds episode, something that Plemons has made a career out of.

Max gets a punch to the ego with the arrival of his more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).  Not only does Brooks drive the car Max has always wanted, invested in Panera Bread, and looks like, well, Kyle Chandler, but he also steals game night away from Max and suggests the next one take place at his house, to which everyone agrees.  Once there, Brooks presents them with a murder-mystery game in which the winner will get Brooks’ car.  However, things soon spiral out of control as the couples embark on a night that none of them were ready for.

Game Night is surprisingly dark and bloody for a Jason Bateman movie.  Not that he hasn’t dabbled in dark humor before (see Horrible Bosses), but this film is as much a thriller as it is a dark comedy, and as such is quite gory in places (and hilarious as a result).  I watched in disbelief as the film was able to balance being an unpredictable thriller and a wild comedy while maintaining a consistent tone throughout, all due to an enjoyably menacing musical score.  I haven’t seen a legitimately dark comedy in a long time, and this film was truly a breath of fresh, messed-up air.

The performances are all solid, with Bateman doing his normal neurotic shtick and Chandler being charmingly swarmy.  However, they are both blown out of the water by Rachel McAdams, who delivers one of the most energetic performances so far this year, with Plemons not far behind.  I hope she returns to comedy more often, as she is clearly having the most fun out of the entire cast.  The other couples are quite funny, but it had more to do with the script than the actors themselves.  I was thankful that improvisation was kept to a minimum, proving my theory that, gasp, a good comedy comes from a good script, not funny people excessively mugging to the camera.  The same goes for the camerawork, with a standout sequence in which the camera follows the characters tossing an egg back and forth to keep it out of harm’s way.  It won’t win any Oscars, but it’s rare to see a comedy with this much effort released so early in the year.

Game Night is dark, funny, and unpredictable, relying on a solid script rather than excessive improvisation, and has a great comic cast.  Though I occasionally tired of Bateman’s angst, there are far more jokes that hit it out of the park than those that meet dead air.  This is a must-see for fans of dark comedies, Rachel McAdams, and anyone who wants a darker flavor of humor.  See it.

Rated R for Language, Sexual References, And Some Violence

“Horrible Bosses 2”: Sequel To 2011 Hit is Lazy, Boring

1 out of 5 stars (one of the worst of the year)

Horrible Bosses 2 poster
Image from http://www.impawards.com/

I have spoken many times on my opinions of sequels. If you make a movie that does well, but has franchise potential after the fact, then feel free to attempt another.  However, sequels to comedies are almost never a good idea, no matter how much bank the first one brought in. Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and even Tooth Fairy all received terrible sequels (yes, a sequel to Tooth Fairy is real.)     Horrible Bosses, a 2011 dark comedy about 3 frustrated guys who want to kill their employers, made major returns ($209 million on a budget of $35 million), but it didn’t need a sequel.  All loose ends were tied and the characters had happy endings.  Unfortunately, money talks, so 2014 gave us Horrible Bosses 2, a film  where the titular bosses are the characters we’re meant to root for.

The film opens with Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) as they are attempting to start their own business. The three have developed a product (The Shower Buddy, possibly the worst name for a product since the Snuggie), and are now searching for investors.  My question during this entire opening was why they didn’t try Shark Tank, but that’s beside the point.

Their prayers seem answered when wealthy businessman Burt Hanson (an underused Christoph Waltz) takes an interest in their product and orders several thousand units. Ecstatic, the boys find a base, hire some workers (in a decently funny joke), and start production.  Unfortunately, Hanson takes back his word as well as the product name (renaming it the Shower Pal), and threatens foreclosure.  Their reaction: Plan to kidnap Burt’s son Rex (an enjoyable Chris Pine) for ransom so they can pay money on their building.  However, things get more complicated when Rex wants in on their caper, leading to frustratingly unfunny results.

This is a perfect example of a cash grab.  Some of the biggest positives of the original have been upped to 11, mutating them into negatives.  Horrible Bosses had a few really funny scenes of the three leads riffing off of each other about random stuff, so Horrible Bosses 2 quadruples that.  There are so many scenes of the script coming to a screeching halt so that the leads can riff on dumb topics that are totally unrelated to the task at hand.  For example, there is a lengthy scene in which Nick ends up in a sex addicts meeting with Jennifer Aniston’s character (a sexual predator) is present.  It starts out okay, but feels totally pointless by the end.  I apologize for the subtitles in the video.

 

On a positive note, Chris Pine provides a number of laughs as the swarmy rich-kid, and Christoph Waltz does what he can.  Sadly, Pine does such a good job at being a snotty brat that it is totally unbelievable when he joins with the guys to assist in the kidnapping plot.  Kevin Spacey also has a glorified cameo in which he gets to insult the leads for their stupidity.  I totally agreed with him in that moment, and wished the film had been about his character living out his prison sentence.

I knew Horrible Bosses 2 would not be great, but I did not expect it to be this bad.  I think Richard Roeper said it best when he wrote “Horrible Bosses 2 is so bad that it isn’t even about horrible bosses.”  That about sums it up.

Rated R for Strong Crude Sexual Content and Language Throughout