A Simple Favor (2018)
Dir. Paul Feig; Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding
[3 out of 4 stars]
Straightaway, A Simple Favor (2018) establishes itself as a film characterized by decadence. Its title sequence is filled with stilettos and rich chocolatey brownies, eventually giving way to a woman’s hand holding a large knife. Even so, the film is not as dark as such an image might suggest. It is a thriller mystery, complete with murder, love affairs, and missing women, yet it is much lighter and funnier than Gone Girl (2014) or The Girl on the Train (2016), to which it could easily be compared because of its subject matter. All three films feature missing women, their presumed death and a search on the part of other characters for answers. While Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train are darker — an unreliable, alcoholic narrator, a violent, failing marriage — A Simple Favor is a brightly-lit, sometimes funny film that I hesitate to call a thriller.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), the film’s main character, is quickly established as the friendless, overachieving mom at her son’s elementary school in modern-day Connecticut. She signs up for multiple volunteer slots at her son’s school before other parents even have the chance. She is perky, energetic and overly helpful, and the other parents resent her (she owns a helium tank simply because “kids love balloons!”) As a widow, her full-time job is caring for her son Miles (Joshua Satine), in addition to running a vlog where she offers fun recipe trips and cute DIY projects for other moms. It is through Miles that she meets Emily (Blake Lively) because their kids are best friends. Emily is a mysterious character, beautiful and glamorously dressed in all black. Stephanie, who favors cat socks and sweaters with pom-poms from the Gap, is drawn to her. The pair hit it off and spend their sons’ playdates getting drunk off Martinis in Emily’s kitchen while telling each other secrets about their family’s financial situation and the like. One day, Emily vanishes without a trace, so Stephanie, ever helpful, jumps in to take care of Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho) and comfort Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding). Even Sean doesn’t understand much about his enigmatic missing wife, calling her “a beautiful ghost.” Days go by with no word from Emily, and details about her past begin to emerge. When the police get involved, Stephanie is forced to consider how well she actually knows her supposed best friend and goes searching for answers.
While one might expect A Simple Favor to spiral downwards into something dark and terrifying, it doesn’t. It never becomes scary or even creepy, although Feig attempts to build suspense at some points. I did not expect the film to take on such a tone, which makes it starkly different from Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, which are both more violent and feature gory brutality. A Simple Favor remains somewhat light, even at its most intense moments. Much of the story takes place during the daytime and it is peppered with jokes to lighten tense moments. During the most important moments of the film, both Emily and Stephanie wear heels and are impeccably dressed; even the scene in which a character gets shot appears clean and choreographed. While I was expecting the film to be more intense than it was, it was enjoyable to watch something that was able to meld both the comic and the dramatic in such an enjoyable way. As contrived as it sometimes seemed, it never strayed from this mood, which helped the film feel cohesive.
The plot, however, is not so cohesive; the early part of the film takes place either at Emily and Stephanie’s homes or at school, building the relationship between the two women. But after Emily goes missing, Stephanie ventures into the city, out to a summer camp, and a host of other locations, somehow becoming a super-sleuth character who charms her way in and out of situations with ease in her strangely determined search for answers. Too much happens in too short a time period, and it’s hard to keep up with what exactly is happening or why Stephanie is in a certain location. Her characterization shifts, and it becomes difficult to discern her motives. Whereas before, she was merely a people pleaser who apologized constantly, she somehow is now the type of badass who can threaten company CEOs and break into houses. As the plot twists and turns compound and A Simple Favor becomes more focused on Stephanie’s detective work, the story becomes unhinged.
The most enjoyable aspect of the film is watching Kendrick and Lively onscreen together. They play off each other beautifully, since Stephanie is such a nervous people pleaser, and Emily once forcefully tells her to “Stop apologizing. It’s a fucked-up female habit.” Stephanie is the kind of mom who asks if Nicky has any dietary restrictions before spending any time with the kid, while Emily simply responds, “Yeah, don’t give him any shit he doesn’t like.” Kendrick imbues Stephanie with oceans of excitable energy and always seems so eager to please that we don’t blame the other parents for being irked at her. Yet we learn as the film progresses that she, too, has a dark side, and Kendrick plays this side of Stephanie well, too, with a perfectly-timed silence or shift in tone. Lively works wonderfully with Kendrick; her smile alone seems filled with so much: fun, pain, insults, pride. Emily is exceedingly complex, and Lively layers Emily’s intricacies delicately. She is many things at once, and we are never sure what she will do next. The best parts of the film are early on, when Emily and Stephanie sit on Emily’s couch drinking martinis, joking and crying together. If the film had featured both women onscreen together more often, it would have been more successful.
As it stands, A Simple Favor is a fun, cheeky sort of drama, not too violent or intense. The film’s uniqueness comes from its combination of dismal subject matter (murder, arson) presented in a lighthearted way. The set is clean and decadent, cloaked in bright colors, sparkling floors and silky fabrics. While The Girl on the Train favored shaky cam shots and darker lighting, A Simple Favor is characterized by clean cuts and angular shots that frame the action well. Of course, the film’s real strengths are its two leads (which cannot be said for The Girl on the Train) and they are able to (mostly) carry the film beyond its other inconsistencies and shortcomings.