Even before the source novel was released, A Simple Favor had been pitched as a mix of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. The adaptation has earned similar comparisons but in practice, Paul Feig’s film stands on its own. Depicting a woman trying to piece together something she only saw glimpses of (in the spirit of The Girl on the Train) as she comes face-to-face with an enigma of a woman who disappears (a la Gone Girl), Feig’s take on this paperback setup fits in his oeuvre despite its thriller inclinations. As a director with a background in female-centric comedies, Feig has earned plaudits for his depictions of female friendship, female empowerment, and often reversing genre stereotypes in focusing on female leads. A Simple Favor is no different, focusing on two women caught on opposite sides of a mystery while taking a tongue-in-cheek, almost satirical edge to thrillers and mysteries. The end result is a funny and often shocking film that manages to indulge in a variety of genre cliches while remaining entirely self-aware in the process, reveling in its pulp appeal of the plot and poking fun at the insanity on screen.
Feig frequently references the works of Alfred Hitchcock, name drops Diabolique, and compares mommy blogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) to Nancy Drew for her detective exploits in investigating the disappearance of Emily (Blake Lively). Feig delivers a rather dry and witty satire of the thriller genre, blending it with wit and physical comedy – Lively delivering the former and Kendrick the latter- that he has become known for in his career. Though this blend of genuine thrills and light comedy may sound like an odd concoction, Feig does manage to balance these tones quite well even when they often converge in the same scene. A prime example finds Stephanie dancing around to French music before suddenly altering the mood with a hard cut, showing her staring at a full closet she had just cleaned out in an earlier scene. Even in the film’s climax, Feig shifts the tone rapidly from thrilling to comedic as the characters try to sort out who actually has the upper hand. Feig consequently imbues a rather unsettling atmosphere, capturing the light nature of these characters’ lives initially before dropping the curtain to their dark realities underneath.
As a conversation between Stephanie and Emily states, everyone has dark secrets. They share some of theirs, while the film reveals even more about both, making use of unreliable narrators in both cases. Examining, with a Douglas Sirk-esque setup, the false tranquility of an affluent suburban lifestyle (along with a modern look at the image one projects to the world versus who they actually are), Feig peels back these seemingly idyllic lives in a stunning fashion. This examination further extends to the film’s theme of parenthood, as the film shows Stephanie throwing herself into becoming the best mom possible, dedicating everyday to her son and her mommy vlog. She is the envy of all of the other parents, including Emily, and mocked by all of them. Yet, not only do the parents come around and respect her advice in the end, but Stephanie’s status as a “perfect parent” largely stems from her own desire to escape from the crushing feeling of loneliness and guilt that surrounds her as a widow. She hides it well, but Feig’s analysis of this duplicity provides the film with its thematic backbone.
Feig builds on this element visually. At various points, he captures the reflections of the main cast in windows or, in one great shot, on a kitchen counter. In playing with unreliable narrators, Feig makes the interesting choice to have more than a few scenes where a character narrates a story from their perspective. As they narrate it, the scene plays out far differently than they claim. This bit of comedic irony may seem illuminating at times, but with every character involved in some kind lie, the scenes serve to more to prove the depth of their dishonesty. While this element is quite interestingly done, it can prove a bit tiresome. The film’s overly satirical and finale is particularly wearing, too triumphantly exuberant and taking the audience through too many twists in too short a timespan. It’s a bit of a perplexing shortcoming, as the film seemingly tries to capture the absurdity of many thrillers, but wound up becoming too convoluted in the process.
One of the best elements of the film is Emily Nelson. Introducing her with a prolonged slow motion shot as she steps out of the car holding an umbrella, one can feel the earthquake-like aftershock she has caused Stephanie’s life. Her resentment towards society for making women sheepish and apologetic come to define her character. Emily often plays like a different take on Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) from Mad Men, particularly at the end of the series. One of the iconic moments for Peggy comes as she walks into her new male-dominated workplace, sunglasses on and cigarette dangling out her mouth, confidently holding a painting of an octopus performing cunnilingus on a woman. In the same way, Emily refuses to conform. She wears suits, undermines and emasculates her boss Dennis (Rupert Friend) and husband Sean (Henry Golding), and prominently displays a painting of her vagina on the wall. Emily refuses to be imprisoned by the role of a housewife, providing Stephanie with the shot in the arm she needs to finally stand up and fight herself. The character, as a result, is an inspired, confident, and almost mythological figure, that wonderfully brought to life by the cool charisma of Lively. The only flaw with Emily is her character’s resolution, as Feig winds up pushing this mysterious woman into someone sinister and deserving of punishment.
Funny, thrilling, and smart, A Simple Favor is a strong comedy-infused take on the thriller genre that delivers light entertainment throughout. Though inspired by a litany of other films, A Simple Favor stands apart from a mere imitation of the films it loves, creating inspired and compelling twists and characters. Balancing these thrills with its comedic inclinations, A Simple Favor also features a strong cast to glue its ideas together. Though its ending is definitely overwritten and the resolution of one of its best characters is incredibly unsatisfying, A Simple Favor stands as one of the best cinematic surprises in recent memory.