Stephanie Smothers, a suburban overachiever played by Anna Kendrick with spunky energy and self-effacing deflection, is the widowed mother of a son in elementary school. Into her life steps Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a sleek urban professional with no maternal instincts––like a high- society shark forcibly moved from her hunting ground to a tranquil aquarium tank. Their odd relationship is the core of A Simple Favor, a neo-noir of suburban pep and middle-class warmth meeting cool sophistication. Playdates, cocktails, and dark secrets are shared.
The final credit on Digging for Fire is a dedication to the late Paul Mazursky, the director of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman and other bittersweet comedies of manners. It can be presumptuous for a young filmmaker—here mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg—to invoke a predecessor. But in this case, fair enough. Digging for Fire has aspects that do indeed recall Mazursky’s movies: a sunburnt L.A. location, an undercurrent of satire directed at its floundering characters, and close attention to actors. Some pretentiousness, too, although in this case everything goes down pretty easily.
While Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt, of Touchy Feely) house-sit in a rambling mansion far above their pay grade (she’s a yoga instructor to a rich person who’s lent them the place for a while), they decide to spend a weekend apart.
The crucial masterstroke of Into the Woods is that the fairy-tale happy ending comes halfway through the action. What exactly becomes of Cinderella after she settles in with her Prince? Does Jack miss the adventure of climbing up the beanstalk? Does Little Red Riding Hood ever dream about the Wolf? Such questions fuel the wickedly amusing 1987 Broadway musical, with songs by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.
Cue the irony, then, that Sondheim’s sly modern classic has been taken up by Disney, history’s busiest purveyors of the happy ending. Sondheim and Lapine were both involved in the film, and if many things have been cut or altered, a bit of a subversive message still peeks through (and some key characters die along the way). Into the Woods presents a crowded roster, with Meryl Streep earning top billing as the Witch, the blue-haired crank who sets things in motion. Streep’s opening scene is pretty glorious, as the actress stalks around the Baker’s shop, spitting out the backstory and laying down a curse.