Every time a new Paul Feig film comes out, there’s the inevitable mention of the fact that he likes focusing his films on female characters. Like this very introduction. But I think it’s worth mentioning that he’s done very different things with each of his films this decade that involve a wide range of actresses playing to or against type. Those films include Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters – all comedies (and yes, all featuring Melissa McCarthy), but each incorporating different genres in the mix. With A Simple Favor, Feig goes in a different direction, with suspense serving as the primary genre – but with comedy still definitely in the mix.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy blogger whose chirpy personality has ostracized her from the other parents in her son’s class, at least until she meets Emily (Blake Lively) the mom of her son’s best friend. Emily’s shrouded in mystery to everyone in the community – she works in the city in a high-profile position, and she’s much more detached from school life than the other parents – but Stephanie and Emily quickly become best friends. Then one day, Emily calls and asks Stephanie to watch her son after school. After that, Emily goes missing. Stephanie wants to know what happened to her friend, so she begins to dig around. The more Stephanie discovers, though, the more we begin to question both Emily and Stephanie.
A Simple Favor falls in many ways into the same vein as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. They’re all based on books that one might consider slightly trashy airplane reads, which I mean in the best possible way. They’re suspenseful mysteries with plenty of twists and turns that are almost designed to keep readers (or viewers) hooked. What sets A Simple Favor apart from those other two, as far as the film goes, is that injection of comedy. To be clear, A Simple Favor is not a comedy, but it incorporates humor into the DNA of the film in a way that helps create a unique tone.
To some degree, that’s aided by having Kendrick in the lead role here. Anna Kendrick is just a delightful human being, and Stephanie’s personality is very clearly defined in the film in part by just having Kendrick in the role. The pleasant surprise here is Lively, who is a bit more of a blank slate in terms of having a presence on film. She’s always good, but this is the first major role that she’s taken (at least to my recollection) where she’s played a darker character. When Emily tells Stephanie, “Oh, you do not want to be friends with me,” you believe her. She’s cool and edgy, from her personality to her wardrobe, and while it’s easy to see why Stephanie would gravitate towards her (especially when no one else seems interested), it’s not all that clear what Emily sees in Stephanie. She’s mysterious, and she makes you want to know a bit more.
Credit is due to Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, as well, for creating a tone that works for the material. From the liberal use of French pop to score the film to the integration of modern technology, including social media, there are a lot of very specific elements at play here that help to create something that feels different from what we normally see in the suspense genre. Altogether, A Simple Favor is one of the more pleasurable filmgoing experiences of the year, and it’s definitely worth seeing in theaters.