Although director Paul Feig’s go-to milieu is female-driven comedies (Bridesmaids, The Heat, the recent remake of Ghostbusters), there is something thrillingly bold, dark and eventually thrilling about his latest work, the deceptively titled A Simple Favor. Based on the novel by Darcey Bell (adapted by Jessica Sharzer, who also wrote 2016’s Nerve), the movie works on multiple levels, and certainly the most enjoyable one involves the idea that maybe what Gone Girl was missing was a sense of humor. But it’s also a statement about women challenging other women to be stronger and more confident (and less apologetic), and an examination of why we let certain people get away with atrocious behavior just because they seem like a higher class of human being. This is a movie that refuses to celebrate bad deeds while also acknowledging that they can be useful tools in combatting the worst in people.
A Simple Favor is a tough film to discuss in any detail without ruining a whole host of great turns. Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, a young widow and mom who hosts a moderately successful mommy vlog, where she offers up recipes, crafting ideas and life tips to the masses. Her son Miles (Joshua Satine) makes friends at school with another kid, Nicky (Ian Ho), and they want to hang out together on a play date after school. Although Stephanie would love to make it happen, she’s hesitant without the permission of Nicky’s glamazon mom, Emily (Blake Lively), who reluctantly agrees to the gathering, if it happens at her house and Stephanie drinks martinis with her while the kids play.
The two women couldn’t be more different. Stephanie is a bundle of pent-up, saintly nerves, who is eager to please and volunteers at school to help forget her financial troubles at home since her husband died in a car crash that wasn’t exactly an accident. Emily is the epitome of style, who never hesitates to be as blunt and intrusive with her questions as she can be. She works as an executive for a top design house, and her demanding boss (Rupert Friends, in a small but scene-stealing role) pushes her 24/7. You can feel her probing for the hot-button issues in someone’s life, and they are powerless to stop it. Yet somehow, the two become friends and begin spilling their guts about various elements of their lives that they have every reason to want to keep quiet.
There is something about the tone of A Simple Favor that is difficult to pin down, and it’s all the better for it. It takes a while for us to figure out how much of what we’re hearing and witnessing is meant to be humorous and what is deadly serious, and by the time we figure it out, we’re so invested on the outcome of this twisted story that we have no choice but to discover where it takes us. Emily likes to complain about her deadbeat writer husband Sean (Henry Golding, the recent male lead of Crazy Rich Asians, who is far more intriguing here), who had a successful book 10 years ago and hasn’t written a thing since. The two seem to remain very passionate for one another, but that doesn’t stop Emily from putting him down at every turn.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is that we can clearly see that Stephanie is being manipulated; we’re just not sure at first to what ends. The other school moms (who include the always wonderful Andrew Rannells as the token gay dad of the group) think Emily is using her to get a free nanny from the friendship, and that certainly seems to be the case when she called Stephanie every day to pick up and feed Nicky. Nobody does the elegant stammer routine better than Kendrick, and she is so desperate to be useful that she allows herself to be used. In one rather poignant moment early in the film, Emily berates Stephanie for apologizing too much, calling it a lesser quality that only women seem to engage in. The realization that a) she does it all the time, and b) that Emily is right about the implications (and the fact that men rarely, if ever, apologize) is a wakeup gut punch that kickstarts a new version of Stephanie that we see grow and evolve throughout the film.
One afternoon, Stephanie gets a frantic phone call from Emily, saying that she has a huge fire to put out at work and asking if she could pick up Nicky from school. Sean is apparently in London with his mother for a medical emergency, and after many hours of looking for timing updates from Emily, Stephanie begins to worry about her friend—her best friend if you ask her. After a couple of days, the police are involved and a full-scale search is under way. I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that the police have reason to believe that Emily may be dead, and as much as people mourn her (to a degree), life snaps back to normal fairly quickly, maybe too quickly.
Stephanie is with Sean and Nicky almost all the time, making them meals and generally looking out for them, and before too long she and Sean start to get close, which gets the school grapevine talking and the police and insurance investigators curious. Stephanie is so entangled in this closeness that she hasn’t felt with someone in many years (she also lost her only sibling in the crash) that she fails to see just how suspicious things look. A Simple Favor seems built on a foundation of betrayal, deception, secrets and long-buried deviant behavior, as Stephanie takes it upon herself to do a little amateur sleuthing through Emily’s deeply hidden past, which brings her into contact with some fun supporting characters, played by the likes of Linda Cardellini and Jean Smart, among others.
In many ways, director Feig is dissecting the modern crime novel, in which a far-fetched scheme often seems less so on the printed page, but downright ridiculous when translated to the big screen. As good as Kendrick is here, we’re seen versions of this character from her before (nothing wrong with playing to your strengths, mind you), but Lively is the one who truly shocked me. With a foul mouth and no filter for risqué subjects, Emily is a force of nature who runs roughshod over those around her—something, we find out, she’s done for most of her life. A Simple Favor is a genuinely good time, if you can handle its more abrasive and subversive qualities. I found them refreshing and inspired, and the film is often quite inspired.
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