Paul Feig earned a place on my “Directors I Will Watch Anything They Make” list after Spy. Spy was such a masterpiece, I decided I was on board for anything he ever directs, not that A Simple Favor would have been a hard sell otherwise.
Spy was not only the perfect spoof of my beloved action genre, but also the awesome Melissa McCarthy action hero vehicle I never knew I needed. I liked Ghostbusters too but more importantly seven-year-old Fred loved Ghostbusters.
Now I know directors can do lots of different things but I bet it was difficult for Feig to convince a studio to make something that wasn’t a straight comedy. There is comedy in A Simple Favor, both the overt and the macabre, but this is a mystery thriller. It turns out seeing a mystery thriller through Feig’s eyes is just as awesome as seeing a spy movie through one.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a helicopter mom who volunteers for every position at her son’s school. Emily (Blake Lively) is a controlling provocateur which serves her well working in high end fashion.
They only become friends through their sons, but Emily introduces Stephanie to a world of not asking for permission or apologizing for her wants and needs. One day Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son, and Emily never returns.
The mystery that unfolds in the search for Emily is reminiscent of the kinds of thrillers that were prolific in the ‘90s. Certainly inspired by the ’40 femme fatale film noirs, the ‘90s made them way more salacious like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Basic Instinct, Consenting Adults, Single White Female, Malice and many more.
These days we get the occasional Gone Girl but A Simple Favor really feels like a ‘90s thriller with 2018 language and sexuality. Novelist Darcey Bell and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer make all those tropes their own.
I guess the raciest the genre got after Basic Instinct was Wild Things. It was so edgy in 1999 to have a threesome! Now a threesome is just backstory for Emily.
Stephanie is still the goofy awkward girl in a Double Indemnity/Malice type mystery which is a charming new twist. She references Diabolique but she means the French original.
In a genre where crazy twists are expected, A Simple Favor finds new ways to keep the audience guessing. There are things we’ve seen before, like insurance policies and suspicious husbands, but A Simple Favor knows we’ve seen them. Like the best con, it manipulates our very familiarity with the genre.
Sometimes it’s the most mundane things that are the most unsettling. When clothes appear in a closet where they shouldn’t be, that genuinely freaks Stephanie out.
Stephanie meets more outrageous characters as she investigates further, each one memorably weird but not unbelievable. There is a microfiche sequence. In a digital age, I appreciate a library that still uses microfiche to archive old newspapers.
Lively is scary yet enticing. That’s how femme fatales work, they get people to do things they know are bad ideas because the promise of excitement is too good to pass up.
Kendrick goes crazy well. We know she can play America’s sweetheart in over her head but the genuine evolution she portrays makes her a very different character by the end.
There is irresistible sexual tension between Stephanie and Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding), between her and Emily and between Stephanie and her previous lover.
A Simple Favor’s secret weapon may be its comedy. At various points it’s satirizing all the stereotypes: both the over and underachieving parents, the spirit so free she’s sociopathic, the sap… If the movie is satirizing the tropes, but the mystery is still serious, then what parts of it can you believe?
For actually four movies now going back to The Heat, Feig has satirized genres without sacrificing those genres. (Maybe that analysis holds up for rom com in Bridesmaids too.)
I can’t wait to see which genre he tackles next. But if he’s taking requests, could he do post-apocalyptic survival where the protagonists have to find supplies?
A Simple Favor is in theaters Friday, September 14.