It’s surprising to see comedy veteran Paul Feig take a turn for the dark, more so lend his directing chops to the thriller genre. However, his latest, A Simple Favor, brings its own hilarious set of twists that pit Anna Kendrick as an innocent suburban mother on an entertaining missing-persons mystery.
A SIMPLE FAVOR, directed by Paul Feig, centers around Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a mommy vlogger who seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town.
Ever since the first implementation of parody into the medium of film, a plethora of genres have faced the humiliation of getting skewered by the unforgiving form of comedy. The horror genre has its share of self-satires such as The Cabin in the Woods and straight-up spoofs like the Scary Movie franchise; spies have gotten send-ups in the form of the Johnny English and Austin Powers trilogies, and even the musical biopic was putdown by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
One subgenre making waves throughout Hollywood year-by-year is the romantic mystery/thriller genre; the excellent film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-seller Gone Girl broke the bank at the box office, as did The Girl on The Train in the following year. But the genre has had its down points through recycled fair such as Obsessed, No Good Deed and When The Bough Breaks. It’s hard-pressed to call A Simple Favor a straight-up parody of this particular subgenre, but it does poke fun at its tropes through its story structure while possessing solid character work, and boasts an equal parts hilarious and engaging story led by assured direction from Paul Feig and great lead performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.
Based on the novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a widowed single mother whose life revolves around posting daily episodes of her vlog and taking care of her elementary school-aged son Miles (Joshua Satine); going so far as to volunteer for every activity she’s allowed to at his school. Her obsessive nature and perky demeanor make her the butt of all the jokes told by the school’s PTA board, but then she meets her polar opposite in Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a brash but beautiful blonde who walks on the wild side.
In the span of days, the two become fast friends, to the point where Emily invites Stephanie to her luxurious, upscale house, introduces her to her husband Sean (Henry Golding), and trades secrets with her over the driest of martinis. But things take a turn for the mysterious one morning when Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son Nicky (Ian Ho) from school, and goes missing that very afternoon. From there, Stephanie finds herself a fish-out-of-water in her own true crime story as she sets out to find her best friend by any means necessary, completely unaware of the labyrinth of secrets she’s about to discover.
Long advertised as a straight-up mystery/thriller, A Simple Favor had the potential to be a significant departure for Paul Feig, who since creating Freaks and Geeks in the late 90s, has made a name for himself directing feature-length comedies with female leads (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy). That background certainly left the door open for this to have elements of parody and genre subversion, and thankfully, A Simple Favor delivers on both the mysterious and comedic fronts.
The soundtrack of classic French pop from the likes of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot up the intrigue and erotic tone of the traditional romantic mystery, while the juxtaposition of the decadence and splendor of Emily and Sean’s dream home with the vibrant colors of Stephanie’s dresses and the walls of her own house further reinforce Stephanie’s predicament as a suburban mom in way over her head while the search for Emily takes her to the main office of the fashion line Emily works for, a bible summer camp, and even an art studio where she meets a painter with an affinity for large knives.
A Simple Favor also does a good job of keeping to the tradition of its subgenre by crafting its story around a well-rounded character: Stephanie Smothers has internal leaps she has to jump; needing to learn how to let loose and be the carefree woman she isn’t in order to not only avoid suspicion from her neighborhood and Emily’s co-workers, but also get herself out of tight pinches with uproarious results. She also goes to incredible lengths to find Emily; from showing her vlog’s audience a rare photo of Emily on a live recording in an attempt to rally more people into assisting her with the search, to a hilariously absurd level of preparedness employing her with everything she needs in the most peculiar of situations. These are spearheaded by a great lead performance from Anna Kendrick, who perfectly balances the naive passiveness and perky motherhood of Stephanie Smothers with her desire to reach the end of the rabbit hole into which she’s dug herself. It’s worth noting that Emily delivers sardonic quips with perfect timing thanks to a fun and spirited performance from Blake Lively.
A Simple Favor also does a good job at parody by making fun of the overly twisty nature of the erotic mystery/thriller subgenre: the story goes through a myriad of twists and turns to many strange places and captivates the audience into asking several questions about Stephanie’s reliability as a character, who Emily really is as a person and where Sean’s loyalty lies. That having been said, it is also a detriment to the film’s narrative because it adds too many twists on top of other twists, rendering the story hard to follow by a finish that feels convoluted, and it doesn’t help that the film moves at a very fast pace.
Regardless, it’s still fun to watch Anna Kendrick’s upbeat, innocent supermom find herself in a bizarre place where she’s never been, and it’s the infectious energy that Kendrick brings to Stephanie’s character arc that keeps the story engaging for the film’s run time. A Simple Favor is hilarious thanks to its sharp dialogue, clever character development and creative use of parody, absurdity and dark humor. Do yourself a favor this weekend, and give a chance to A Simple Favor.