“A Simple Favor” is a clever film, filled with lots of twists and turns—perhaps one or two too many?—and enhanced by two fine actresses, Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. The movie, which takes place in an upscale Connecticut town, is about an unlikely friendship between Stephanie and Emily, two total opposites whose young sons are friends: Stephanie (Kendrick), perky and preppy, a seemingly naïve young widow who has created a daily video blog addressed to moms; Emily (Lively—so very good), as a thoroughly cynical, bored, secretive New York fashion industry executive. After the initial set-up where the two women bond over martinis while the kids share a play date, the film sets in motion a major mystery based on the “simple favor” of the title—would Stephanie please pick up Emily’s son after school as she has been detained? The simple favor turns into a disappearance, a possible murder/suicide, suspicion cast on Emily’s husband (Henry Golding), maybe on Stephanie, until the final unraveling during which everyone outdoes everyone else in clever Gotchas!.
It’s all quick scenes with witty, if surface, dialogue, and it is to the actors’ credit that any depth is shown on the screen—because they have filled in the blanks. Paul Feig directs and the visuals of Lively, in particular (all lights and shadows in her various outfits), are stunning set pieces. The script by Jessica Sharzer and Darcey Bell (based on her novel) is fast-paced, often funny, often lewd and gets the job done. If I am less than thoroughly enamored of “A Simple Favor,” it is because none of the characters make that screen-to-audience emotional connection that’s so important in a successful movie. Stephanie’s perkiness is as effective in keeping us at a distance as is Emily’s been-there-done-that darkness. As for Golding, the husband, we have no idea what to make of him for pretty much the entire movie, so the connection, again, isn’t possible. Still, it’s a good escape film that keeps us guessing.
As far as I’m concerned, Emma Thompson rules. In any role she undertakes, she is always so real and so very human; her lovely, middle-aged face a treasure trove of oh-so-subtle expressions that telegraph huge inner emotions. In “The Children Act” (still barely in theaters but available on Amazon Prime), all of her skills are put to excellent use in her role as Judge Fiona Maye, a perfect example of extremely private British stiff upper lip. It’s not an easy character to play; the judge must rule daily on thorny, often heartbreaking issues regarding children and families, which requires complete detachment. Some of this has seeped into her childless marriage, which is in trouble. Fiona seems to have no one to talk to; her couple of attempts, with a colleague and her clerk, are immediately shut down, and she’s so buttoned up we are left to wonder not if but when she will unravel.
Based on a novel by Ian McEwan, the renowned author also penned the screenplay, which is very faithful to the book. It moves with deliberation and rich dialog, many silences, and thoroughly captures the surface charm and inner struggle for disengagement of Judge Maye. As the husband, Stanley Tucci, usually a fine actor, seems a bit out of place here as a man who can no longer tolerate her complete dedication to her job at the cost of intimacy; we’re not sure what to make of him, even though we understand his dilemma. Directed with understated care by Richard Eyre, “The Children Act” is Thompson’s film all the way, from how she carefully removes her heels the minute she gets home, to the way she chastises some of the claimants who appear before her, to her visit to a dying young man (Fionn Whitehead) whose religion forbids him to have blood transfusions, to her maternal longings, to her inevitable emotional reckoning with how she has lived her life. There are no easy answers or fixes here—this is Ian McEwan, after all—but then, life doesn’t have many of those, does it?