I have a confession to make: When I saw Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor, I assumed it was written by Gillian Flynn. It’s not. I was mistaken. The screenplay is actually credited to Jessica Sharzar (Nerve, American Horror Story) and adapted from a novel by Darcey Bell, but the thematic similarities to Gillian Flynn’s work are unmistakable: black comedy, complex, damaged female characters, noirish mystery, and suburbia satire. As such, the Gone Girl comparisons are unavoidable, but often probably quite intentional, celebrating the Flynn oeuvre while also having a bit of fun with it. Thankfully, A Simple Favor weaves an effortlessly entertaining spell and features a narrative as icy as the martinis the characters swill and ingest to the sounds of swinging 60s French pop. It’s also just as refreshing.
The story centers on the rather appropriately named Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), whose entire world revolves around her son, his school, and her online how-to vlog. Her control-freak tendencies and tightly wound demeanor earn the ire and mockery of the school’s other parents, played by Andrew Rannels, Aparna Nancherla, and Kelly McCormack.
Eventually, through her son, Stephanie finds herself drawn towards Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), who exists as Stephanie’s ultimate contrast. Emily’s house is modern and sparsely decorated while Stephanie’s is modest and overflowing in suburban warmth. Emily wears sleek, slightly masculine pants suits and tuxedos, while Stephanie wears dresses and skirts. Emily is as relaxed and assertive as Stephanie is neurotic and meek. Emily also has a wildly passionate relationship with her husband, Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding, who takes far more of a backseat in the story than Ben Affleck did in Gone Girl), while Stephanie is a grieving widow.
Eventually, the two form a kind of bond. Stephanie comes to see Emily as her best friend, mainly because she’s the only person who shows her any kind of positive attention. Whether Emily actually feels the same way about her is a matter of some debate.
It’s no spoiler to say Emily suddenly vanishes without a trace, following the titular “simple favor” request that Stephanie pick up her son after school. The film actually opens with a vlog entry from Stephanie providing that bit of information, thus lending the first half of the film a handy framing device. Once the disappearance occurs, though, we are just in the dark as Stephanie.
As the mystery stretches on, she find herself sucked into Emily’s world, playing surrogate mother to her son and surrogate wife to a grieving husband, as a sense of perpetual unease permeates every frame. What follows is a twisty, labyrinthine narrative that involves familial betrayals, long-buried secrets, and eventual homicide.
I’m going to try to be as vague as I can about the events that follow Emily’s disappearance since the film walks a path of red herrings, false leads, and eventual revelations. Ultimately, the narrative turns into a murder-mystery, black-comedy infused study of flawed, complicated women with more than a few skeletons resting in their respective closets.
Performances are strong throughout, but this film belongs to Kendrick and Lively. Kendrick has played a tightly wound, type-A female before, but the damaged psyche hiding beneath her aspirational image makes Stephanie more complicated and compelling than she initially appears when she first graces the screen. Lively has the trickier role, playing a woman who initially appears as the ultimate “cool girl.”
As the mystery surrounding her disappearance deepens and Stephanie becomes more and more involved in learning her backstory, it becomes immediately clear how little we’ve seen and known of her character and how, like Stephanie, entranced we’ve been.
She has a biting wit that seems initially charmingly refreshing and appealing but seems cruel and snide upon reexamination. It’s the kind of role actresses relish and Lively gives a career-best performance.
Feig, best known for female-centric comedies like Bridesmaids and Spy, maintains his familiar knack for understanding the sometimes tense, sometimes devoted relationships women can develop without ever devolving them into shrill caricatures. He also maintains a tightrope balance between the film’s warped narrative with the shocked laughter that can accompany the best dark comedies. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, and its success is something of a minor miracle.
A Simple Favor offers a hybridization of Douglas Sirk’s icy look at suburbia’s toxic underbelly, Alfred Hitchcock’s theme of an everyman (or woman, in this case) finding themselves entwined in a mystery, and the previously mentioned Gillian Flynn’s use of damaged, flawed female leads. The film’s world is technicolor bright, but its sunny vividness masks an icy, decaying center. Feig ensures one doesn’t overwhelm the other.
If it turns out that the narrative’s revelations aren’t quite as satisfying as the journey it took to get there, isn’t that always the way with mysteries? It almost doesn’t matter because the film, its director, and its more than game cast is having too much fun for us to hold any grudges against them. As the film drew to a close, I was beaming from ear to ear at the cynical, ruthless, black comedy that had been spun before my eyes. It’s a film that might be mostly surface, but when the surface is this appealing, it seems curmudgeonly to complain.