A bold, brassy take on Gone Girl, Paul Feig's mommy-vlogger noir allows Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively to smash the patriarchy in some fascinating ways.
You have to admire the bravery of a film that all but tells you what it’s about. At no point does A Simple Favor attempt to hide its influences; instead, it proudly scatters them throughout as characters casually namedrop films like Diabolique and Gaslight. The film noir genre is embedded in its very core, with almost every element being a callback to the films of the 40’s and 50’s. Based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell, the story follows mommy blogger Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) as she tries to come to terms with the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively). In true 21st-century fashion, much of the story is told through social media, as Stephanie uses her YouTube-style vlog to aid in the search for her missing friend, only to realize that she may not have known Emily at all.
Keeping with its 50’s influences, Jessica Sharzer develops the screenplay with hints of the noir detective genre and even some of Kurosawa’s Rashomon flair. We are introduced to the key players, all seen through the lens of amateur detective Stephanie, who proves to be an unreliable narrator the further in we go. The more she investigates, the more she realizes that Emily isn’t who she thought, especially when everyone recalls her in a different way. Sharzer depends on the audience to find this Type A mom less than credible, with neuroses to spare. But paradoxically, the deeper we dive into Emily’s disappearance, the more we learn about Stephanie. This form of dual character development is perfectly attuned for this story of female friendship and empowerment.
Perhaps A Simple Favor’s greatest asset is its absolute breeziness. Every part of the story is crafted for the passive viewer to be able to reach and understand all the twists. It plays off recent films like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train with similar, often predictable, story developments. Even if you can predict the ending (and believe me, you probably will/already have), A Simple Favor has a cinematic fluidity to it that keeps you constantly present. It won’t leave you with any metaphysical quandaries, or leave you wondering if the top is still spinning after the film fades to black – it’s simple and deceptively straightforward, which works in the film’s, well, favor.
Director Paul Feig, one of the biggest names in comedy directing, can be a bit hit or miss, but his command of pacing and tone is shockingly adept here. Not only is the cinematography a perfect vehicle for the film’s comedy, he manages to keep it It should come as no surprise that no matter the evolutions the film goes through as it continues, it remains effortless funny. Kendrick may carry this tune almost entirely, but Lively becomes the perfect accessory to complete the ensemble.
The true strength of A Simple Favor is its effortless shifting between tones and It starts off a so many other films about millennials do, and showcases social media, FOMO, and feelings of isolation, only to turn it into some love child of Serial and Making a Murderer. It creates a foundation of relatability and builds intrigue and mystery on top of it. There is a sweet comedic note held throughout, but even that proves to be another twist because it lulls the audience into a sense of safety. It feels like a shield from darkness, like there is no possible way that anything truly grim could happen. No punches are held when it comes to delivering bleak turn of events or revelations.
Genre films like these often feel like cheap cash grabs that are meant to feed off nostalgia. They are usually made and remade in the same style, siphoning off the essence of better directors. The only real excuse for making a film like that is to add a new perspective or incorporate timely social commentary, and Feig delivers exactly that. If this is indeed Gaslight, then Charles Boyer has been gloriously replaced by Blake Lively. Lively’s character, Emily, is the biggest subversion to the genre, and the cascading effects of everyone and everything around her make it the most essential. Aside from rocking slick power suits better than Don Draper ever could, the most remarkable thing is that Emily doesn’t wear them as an editorial statement, but as a display of power. Emily takes the notion of the power suit as masculine status symbol and wonderfully appropriates it, showing that masculinity is not exclusively for men, all while remaining fiercely feminine at the same time.
Through Emily, Feig shows us a glimpse of a world where the matriarchy reigns. She has a high-level position where she keeps her male boss in line, all while being a mother and supporting her unemployed husband. She wears the pantsuit in the family as not only the breadwinner, but the dominant one in her relationship with her husband Sean (Henry Townsend). Her unapologetic attitude and substance abuse problems are meant to reflect the men in the films they are influenced by, but also to show a refreshing take on women finally having the freedom to behave the way men have always acted.
For better or worse, Emily’s character is a sexually inverted mirror to society that ultimately shows that no person, male or female, should behave that way. Her treatment of women, especially to Stephanie, is meant to be a wakeup call. Throughout their friendship, Emily is constantly condescending to Stephanie, who is meant to represent female repression through male/masculine oppression. Stephanie is the epitome of the perfect Stepford wife, which Emily responds to by calling her “babygirl” as a term of endearment, but also to infantize her perceived innocence and not acknowledge her as an equal by calling her “girl” and not “woman”.
If comedy is the veins of Feig’s career, then creating strong female characters is most certainly its lifeblood. At the beginning of the film, Stephanie and Emily both represent two extremes of a scale, neither of which is a healthy balance. Feig places the focus on Stephanie’s evolution under the sometimes-caustic direction of Emily. The influences of Gaslight are apparent, especially in the latter half of the film, but at its core, female empowerment is the true goal. The topic of women apologizing is an example as it makes a running gag appearance throughout the film as Stephanie constantly slips up when trying to break this bad habit. At one point, she even tries to dress the same as Emily but quickly realizes it’s not for her. In the end, she finds her voice, which is not the one that society groomed for her or the one Emily tried to force on her, but a balance that works for her. That is definitely a message that nobody should ever apologize for.
A Simple Favor struts into theaters in a confident ladysuit Friday, September 14th.