While the Toronto International Film Festival showed me many wonders—soaring A Star Is Born, thrilling Widows, whatever Natalie Portman is doing in Vox Lux—it cruelly denied me one crucial September pleasure.
Because I was in the Great North, getting my awards-season ducks in a row, I couldnt make it to a screening of A Simple Favor, Paul Feigs deliciously sneaky and silly airport-paperback thriller (the novel was written by Darcey Bell) thats shaping up to be a sleeper box-office hit. I finally caught up with the film this weekend, and can confirm not only that the film is delightfully fun, but that Blake Lively has fully arrived.
Some of us have been on the Blake Lively train for a while. But as Emily, A Simple Favors alluring enigma—a glamorous, no-nonsense sophisticate who bewitches Anna Kendricks fastidious, type-A suburban mom—Lively sashays off with a movie like she never has before. Shes elegantly, caustically profane, purring over ice-cold martinis in fabulous double-breasted suits, a talons curl of a threat lurking in her voice. We understand why Kendricks Stephanie is so drawn to her, because the very frame of the movie seems pulled toward the center of her glowing gravity. Its the most commanding Lively has been on-screen yet, some kind of culmination, or at least a logical progression, of the impressive film work shes been doing over the past few years.
Perhaps its time we all took Blake Lively seriously—even if her terrific performance in A Simple Favor is pretty far from serious. Livelys had a great run in the last few years, one that some people have unfairly laughed off because, I think, of the Lively-ness of it all. Her hot streak began with 2015s The Age of Adaline, a winningly earnest magical fable romance about an ageless woman that finds Lively at a pitch that borders on cloying saintliness, but stays just shy of that bad territory. Lively glides around with thoughtful poise in director Lee Toland Kriegers dreamy, melancholy air, projecting a sorrowful wisdom befitting a woman whos lived long past her intended years.
The Age of Adaline, which also features a great dramatic Harrison Ford performance, made $65 million off a $25-ish million budget—pretty good for a movie not based on any I.P., and starring someone who, yes, is famous, but had not yet been road-tested at opening a movie on her own. The mild success of Adaline, both creative and commercial, suggested that perhaps there was something to this notion of Blake Lively: Motion Picture Star.
She made good on that suggestion the next summer in The Shallows, a sleek little shark thriller that again put Lively front and center, this time mostly solo. She acquitted herself well, managing terror and tenacity in her fight against a C.G.I. shark while also plucking the films emotional strings. The marketing for the movie sold the prospect of Blake Lively in a bikini for two hours, panting in peril; but Jaume Collet-Serras film is cleverer than that base appeal, and it surfed a wave of positive reviews to a box office haul of $119 million, over four times its budget. Yes, some credit for that can go to the shark (and to Steven Seagull). But I suspect Livelys presence, a warmth and spirit that earns an audiences devotion, played a large part in the films success.
A few months after The Shallows opened, another Lively film quietly premiered at Toronto. When I saw All I See Is You at the festival, I was one of only a few critics in the room. Which was a shame, because Marc Forsters small but artful drama-thriller, about a woman who regains her sight only to see her husband (Jason Clarke) terribly anew, is an arresting curio, anchored by a fluid, deeply felt performance that brings to mind Julia Robertss shoulda-been-Oscar-nominated work in Sleeping with the Enemy. All I See Is You is less of an overt thriller than that, though; reactive and physical, Livelys work in the film isnt flashy. But it also neednt be.
It was heartening that when the film came out, a year later, it got some supportive reviews, though it was by all considerations a poorly marketed flop. Ah well. The path to true movie stardom never did run completely smooth. Still, Lively has been steadily building a body of work thats expanded her range—or rather shown us new facets of it—and All I See Is You is a crucial part of that arc. (Yes, she also had a small part in Woody Allens Cafe Society, where she managed to brighten up her surroundings—though working with Allen was a dubious career choice long before she signed on to the film.) No matter how small or underseen it may be, Lively has shown that she can hold the center of a film with understated, workmanlike sureness.
And then she comes barreling into A Simple Favor and does something completely different, mixing arch comedy with sinister undertones to smashing effect. Its a disarming calling card of a performance, a spiffy redesign that could open the doors to even more interesting roles. Do we necessarily need another movie star like Lively taking up jobs when Hollywood films are already so blindingly white? Perhaps not. But its undeniably interesting watching an actress go from lightning-rod star of an oft-mocked teen TV show (thatd be Gossip Girl) to failed lifestyle mogul (R.I.P. Preserve) to an actress carefully recalibrating and reintroducing herself, bit by bit, with such strong and unexpected results each time.
In honor of the release of All I See Is You last year, I pitched five imaginary movies for the actress, thinking I sort of had her pegged. But A Simple Favor challenges those assumptions, so now Im feeling a little more uncertain—in a good way!—about where she could go next.
Which is not something I thought Id say about Blake Lively just four years ago. Its not rare for a beautiful blonde woman to become a movie star; maybe theres not actually anything special or interesting about Livelys narrative. This is not even her first crack at film: earlier in her career, she had goes in fare as varied as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Town, Green Lantern, and Savages.
What shes doing now feels different, though. Lively is diligently and smartly forging her own weird path toward marquee success, judiciously picking roles that gradually illuminate what she can do—rather than solely what she can earn. Whatever strategy shes cooked up is beginning to pay off in intriguing ways. Shes got a Reed Morano revenge thriller, The Rhythm Section, up early next year, and then who knows? Heres hoping she tries it all.
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