A Simple Favor (aka A Simple Favour, 2018)

Moving forward to a film from the past year, today’s film doesn’t really feel particularly serious (I’m probably stretching the definition of ‘drama’ in this case), but it’s certainly not just a straight comedy, for all that the appearance of Anna Kendrick sort of primes you for that. It attempts to find its place amongst a very shifting emotional and melodramatic tone that encompasses various generic formats, that can seem to swing wildly but I think is anchored by the comedic elements that recur throughout.


I feel like this movie has been misrepresented, as much by its own marketing perhaps as by critics. I’ve been told over and over that it’s tonally all over the place, but I don’t agree with that: yes, it’s a film with plenty of twists, but I think it admirably sustains its tone through all of the many shifts its narrative takes. It feels to me like what a successful blend of action, comedy and crime drama should be — in other words, what The Spy Who Dumped Me recently failed fully to achieve. Through all the psychological drama, the mystery and thrills, it maintains an underlying comic tone (there are even laughs at a funeral scene), and it sets up it its carefully poised blend of comedy and creepiness right from the start. Anna Kendrick’s acting chops have been well discussed (and I mostly love her), but Blake Lively is the underrated artist here, compulsively watchable as the bad girl, a fashionable icon with a taste for the outré. Then there’s the narrative itself, which manages to have elements of Personal Shopper (ghostly presences, taking on identities, elements of class-based envy) but reworked into a hyperactive mystery structure which maybe gets a little overcooked towards the end — at which point it is largely sustained by Lively and Kendrick. Still, the soundtrack is packed with French pop songs and it’s great fun.

A Simple Favour film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writer Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Darcey Bell); Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Wednesday 26 September 2018 (and again on Netflix streaming at home, London, Monday 19 August 2019).

Ghostbusters (2016)

It is apparently incumbent on every white dude on the internet to register his opinion on this new ‘reboot’ of Ghostbusters, the 1984 film which brought together a handful of comedic actors and writers (most prominently from Saturday Night Live) in a supernatural-themed comedy pitting aforesaid actors against a demonic threat to New York City. And so again we have a handful of comedic actors and writers (mostly from SNL) in a supernatural etc. etc. The remake largely refocuses the film on the four titular characters (three dorky scientists and one subway worker played by Leslie Jones) and their comedic interactions. Supporting characters — including their chief antagonist, who in a nod perhaps to the source of much of the online “criticism”, is an introverted, maladjusted guy with very little in the way of a defined character — are reduced to a number of cameos from the original cast, and a fine turn by another SNL alum Cecily Strong as the mayor’s sceptical and unhelpful aide. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth as a beefy but very very stupid receptionist, who threatens at times to steal the film. He doesn’t though, because Kate McKinnon does that, as the compellingly weird Jillian Holtzmann, who also gets one of the key later action sequences, a relatively short but thrilling single-handed paranormal combat. I don’t know, maybe the script isn’t so tight in all respects, and I have to concede I was pretty drunk when I watched it, but I really fail to understand a lot of the film’s critics. Perhaps the humour won’t appeal to everyone, but it all seemed pretty funny to me, plus there were scares reminiscent of the first film. And as far as I can recall, there aren’t any scenes of anyone being sexually pleasured by a ghost, so bonus marks for that. As I see it, though, quite aside from the comedy and horror, the key points are: representation for leading characters who are women, who don’t need the help of men, who get to be intelligent and have that define them rather than their looks or their sexuality, and who get a happy ending. That much seems rare enough in contemporary Hollywood blockbuster films that I think it’s worth trumpeting.

Ghostbusters film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writers Katie Dippold and Feig (based on the 1984 film by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis); Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 22 July 2016.

Spy (2015)

I hated Paul Feig’s last collaboration with Melissa McCarthy, The Heat, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting much out of this return to another well-worn genre (guess which). And though it’s not perfect in every respect, thankfully it’s a lot better — and more sustainedly funny, too. The set-up is that Susan Cooper (McCarthy) plays a shy back-room support role for Jude Law’s suave agent in the field, but when he is taken out of the picture she needs to step up to become a field agent herself. British TV audiences might have difficulty accepting Miranda Hart as a bumbling best friend, or Peter Serafinowicz as a sleazy Italian, but the way these archetypes are framed within the story is certainly done with a lot more intelligence than this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, another (apparently) comic take on the James Bond ethos. Perhaps best of all — surprisingly — is Jason Statham, as an utterly unironic (and therefore hilarious) spy film superhero, embodying all the worst traits of Bond, and easily confounded by Susan Cooper. The simple twist is handled with aplomb, and McCarthy puts across her best comedy performance yet (especially when she sheds the shy persona to take control), but most importantly, Spy is funny when it needs to be.

Spy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Paul Feig; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Jude Law; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Saturday 13 June 2015.

The Heat (2013)

I still think there’s a lot to appreciate about this film, and a lot of reason not to write it off from the outset. For a start, it’s from the director of Bridesmaids (2011), a very likeable comedy that was generous to its largely female cast, and the TV show Freaks and Geeks, which was unjudgemental about high school cliques and launched the careers of many of today’s comedy stars. The writer worked on Parks and Recreation, one of my very favourite TV comedies of recent memory, and it stars a number of alumni of the often very funny Saturday Night Live (including the wonderful Jane Curtin in a small role). And I remain very happy with the idea of taking a genre as hackneyed as the buddy cop film and giving it a gendered twist. In fact, I rather enjoyed the trailer to be honest, so I thought it might be worth a couple of hours of my time. It’s just that, as a finished film, it feels stale and underwhelming and lacks real laughs.

It trades in the most reductive stereotypes for a start, though I appreciate that’s not exactly a huge criticism for a comedy, and yet some tiny helping of subtlety wouldn’t go amiss. As Boston cop Mullins, Melissa McCarthy is just relentlessly full of physical abuse and pushiness, while Sandra Bullock’s Special Agent Ashburn is prudish and smugly supercilious. That these two diametrically opposed characters should have to work together is surely chapter 1 in Writing a Buddy Cop Film for Dummies, but even that text might suggest leavening the good cop/bad cop roleplaying with something a little bit sympathetic and human to these portraits. Sure, there’s a bit of backstory to explain away their respective behaviours (this is where the always-excellent Curtin comes in), but it’s tediously predictable.

And that’s the thing: the laughs just aren’t there. Sure, there are some, but it’s not sustained, and it doesn’t come from anything that feels like real understanding of these characters as humans, just as excuses for them to do ‘things which are funny’. They get drunk together and dance at a dive bar, but without any apparent spontaneity or fun; they aggressively trade insults, but it’s just to illustrate their different characters; they hang a drug dealer off a building to get information from him, but then drop him by mistake, and I just don’t know what that’s supposed to be (empowering? funny?). A lot of the comedy in fact seems to be solely in the idea of putting women in the place of the genre’s more familiar boorish, lawless men, but it needs more of a twist than that.

There’s a lot of plot too — something about taking down a notorious drug lord — and it feels as if it’s lifted wholesale from another chapter of the genre textbook. It’s not like the intricacies of this are particularly important to the film, but when the plot is quite so forgettable, it makes the jokes that hang off it easy to forget too. Added to this that the film is presented in a grungy neo-70s style, complete with vintage funk music soundtrack, and it doesn’t feel particularly fresh on the whole (even the 2004 Starsky and Hutch managed to feel more up-to-date, but perhaps the mid-2000s were a high-water mark for American comedy).

In truth, I wanted to like this film, still do want to like this film, but I feel let down. The potential was there, it just lost focus in the execution. Which is, after all, probably something I should have been clued into, given the hilariously bad airbrushing of McCarthy on the UK poster (the image with this review is of the US poster). ‘It could have been worse’ isn’t really a recommendation, but I remain in hope for future film collaborations by Feig and co.

The Heat film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writer Katie Dippold; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.