Equal parts fun and thrilling, A Simple Favor keeps the plates spinning on its central mystery until the very end. Playing into Anna Kendrick’s quirky wheelhouse, it pushes Blake Lively into new and interesting territory that not only goes beyond her Gossip Girl good looks but subverts them. It mines twists that are more puzzle box than whiplash, coming as they do from the genuine complexity of the story’s central mystery, avoiding the risk that one single twist will buckle under the weight of supporting the expectations of an entire film. Taking big swings and playing with perspective, it delivers a surprising combination of Hitchcock and Killing Eve that, much like its leading ladies, is so much more than it seems.
An hour and a half outside of New York City, widowed mommy vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) takes us back to the beginning, her nascent best friendship with cool girl alcoholic working mom Emily (Blake Lively), who she met when their sons befriended each other in school. The two moms couldn’t be more different, and Emily teaches Stephanie to be less of a doormat and how to make a real London martini in exchange for basically making perpetually-chipper Stephanie her unpaid nanny.
The dark cloud hanging over it all is that we know from the outset that Emily is missing, but already things don’t quite add up. We look for clues in Emily’s troubled relationship with her gorgeous non-writing author husband (Henry Golding, who gets to do ever so slightly more here than in Crazy Rich Asians) and in every sisterly confession between the two women or stilted seed of mistrust Emily sews with everyone in her orbit, Stephanie grows ever more eager to know the truth about Emily. Even if it kills her.
A Simple Favor continues director Paul Feig’s recent run of women-centric projects like Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters. Like many of those, it’s written by a woman, Jessica Sharzer (Speak screenplay, American Horror Story), based on the novel by Darcey Bell.
The rest of the cast is filled out with some great bit players, including Andrew Rannells doing his usual thing (but it’s working, so who cares?) with the rest of the Greek mommy chorus Kelly McCormack (Killyjoys) and comedian Aparna Nancherla. A funny turn from Bashir Salahuddin (AKA Cherry Bang’s husband from GLOW) as Detective Summerville grounds much of the second half of the film, and Linda Cardelini gets to show off a different side. Homeland’s Rupert Friend is also fun as Emily’s barely-recognizable prettified designer boss.
It’s hard not to hold all thrillers of this nature up against Gone Girl, and these days it seems movies making us wonder, “is she dead? Is she alive? Did the other woman kill her? Did they make out?” are a genre unto themselves. But Favor is decidedly a story of how women interact with each other, instead of one about how they interact with men. Where Gone Girl takes place in an alternate reality where all women are automatically believed about sexual assault, Favor is invested in the micro-inflections and secret languages that women use purely among ourselves, to torment or tantalize.
Lively’s Emily does better the more specific she gets – one difficulty of writing an enigma is that you run the risk of presenting a vague pile of Cool Girl sensibilities with no real personality to hold it together – but as the script invests in her, so do we. Killing Eve vibes are everywhere, from killer French (dare I say roséwave?) soundtrack to the tension between the two leads, and the movie’s willingness to go there with regard to queerness without making a mockery of it. And then there’s the BDE wardrobe, skull cane and all, as Lively’s Emily serves up George Sand realness in haute couture menswear with an attitude that careens from refreshingly brash to potentially damaging. All the while Stephanie, “baby,” eats it up – and maybe we do a little, too.
It’s an odd trend that so many movies and shows have us wondering, “maybe she’s a feminist – maybe she’s a murderer” but stranger still seems to be the fact that we don’t care. If there’s a downside to A Simple Favor, other than the necessarily slow middle section, it’s that by the end, I genuinely didn’t care who killed who or who got away with what. I wanted to know the answer, but I wasn’t particularly rooting for anyone, since everyone seemed a bit shitty. Favor makes a bold move by not having a clear paragon for good yet somehow maintaining that everyone still loves their kids.
A quibble: there are several times when the answer to the question is simply polyamory. This is the case in many movies, but Favor’s sensibilities (or at least Emily’s) actually make it seem like the kind of movie that should entertain that notion, making it stand out not to. Why can’t a movie that jokes “prudes are people too!” and has an even-handed attitude toward threesomes also have a reasonable conversation about multiple partners on a more permanent basis? If nothing else, it would open up more creative possibilities for writers. Imagine the double-crosses!
A Simple Favor doesn’t underestimate its viewer. It features the word vulva spoken aloud, a full bush painting in someone’s living room, and a frank reference to the violence of child birth – most movies wouldn’t be bold enough to have even one. The conceit of the mommy vlog is thankfully used with a light hand. Favor spends more of its mileage on the specific strangeness of friendships between adult women, the lies we tell, and the secrets we keep. A lesser film would play up the pinterest-perfect mommy vlogger, some titillating girl on girl action, or even just the good ol’ fashioned working mom versus stay at home mom wars, but A Simple Favor darkly skewers all three.