With A SIMPLE FAVOR, Paul Feig takes a very dark turn into neo-noir by way of a deliciously wicked social satire. There’s nary a hard-boiled detective in sight, but at the center of the film’s mystery, there is an enigmatic femme fatale to rival any from the golden age of that genre. The humor, courtesy of Anna Kendrick’s skittish vulnerability resonates as more than mere frippery, while the twists, turns, and screeching switchbacks with which the story abounds makes for a meticulously plotted mystery that engrosses as well as confounds.
Kendrick is Stephanie, a widowed mother mentally ticking off the time until the insurance money from her husband’s car accident runs out. In the meantime, she perkily muddles through by vlogging helpful hints for her fellow moms, and over-volunteering at her son’s elementary school, to the rolled eyes and snide remarks of the other parents. Into her lonely life strides the ultra-chic and ultra-confident Emily (Blake Lively in a breakout performance), the femme-fatale in designer stilettos and a prestige job in NYC. To the confusion of everyone, especially Stephanie, Emily becomes Stephanie’s best friend shortly before asking her for the simple favor of picking up her own son, who has become best friends with Stephanie’s boy, and watching him for a few hours. Baby-sitting turns into worry as Emily drops out of sight, when husband Sean (Henry Golding), a one-hit-wonder of a novelist now teaching at the local suburban college, is out of the country. Grief over what happened to Emily eventually vies with the growing attraction Stephanie feels for Sean, and the attraction he feels for Stephanie’s effortless domesticity after 10 years of Emily’s anything but. What ensues for them is bliss with barbs.
The delicate balance of comedy and suspense is perfection, with both playing into each other, particularly in the early bonding scenes between Stephanie and Emily. Stephanie’s platonic girl crush on Emily, her designer clothes, endless perfect gin martinis, and showcase home played out in endearing awkwardness as Emily watches in a bemusement that flirts with being predatory in nature, even as she icily forces Stephanie to break her habit of always apologizing and standing her ground. There is a sense of a different kind of loneliness at work in Stephanie, a melancholy that comes from money woes and a tinge of disappointment over how her husband’s glittering promise fizzled even if their sex life, as evidenced by their effusive PDAs, hasn’t.
As Stephanie takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of Emily’s disappearance, the tutelage stands in good stead when confronting Emily’s designer mogul of a boss (a superciliously fragile Rupert Friend), but not so much the police detective (Andrew Moodie), whose bluff and hearty manner deliberately fails to conceal his own suspicions about what is really going between husband and best friend. Kendrick, posing as confident and surprising herself is a moment funny and empowering. Kendrick working through Emily’s past trauma while attempting the confident pose with a detective is a moment funny and poignant. The punctuation of Stephanie’s Vlog as she shares the emotional roller-coaster on which Stephanie has put her with friendship bracelet how-tos, and unconventional tributes, Kendrick nails the inevitable progression from innocence to wisdom that is as heart-tugging as it is absurd.
At one point in A SIMPLE FAVOR, Stephanie says that everyone has a dark side, she just does a better job of hiding hers. It’s a dark thread that runs through this fizzy precis on the dark side of Mommy Culture, the unreliability of one’s instincts, and the true nature suburbia’s denizens. There are revelations (expected and not) to temper our snap judgments, and our pat theories, as contexts shift, and cleverly annotating lurid secrets (for which, of course, Stephanie has a homey homily) with a gloss of humanity.