Do not let the misleading trailers fool you—A Simple Favor is not a cheesy thriller about lady murder. It is, however, a PARODY of those things. Why on earth A Simple Favor wasn’t marketed as the black comedy it is I will never understand (and they are paying for it at the box office), but it is definitely a comedy, albeit a dark one, and it is clearly parodying stuff like Gone Girl and the recent trend of melodramatic, female-centric crime thrillers in the entertainment space. It’s actually a really good black comedy with a Hall of Fame performance from Anna Kendrick—if Oscar voters didn’t suffer from tunnel vision her performance would absolutely be considered in the Best Actress race—and it also has something to say about the pressure on women to be obliging and the societal expectations of mothers.
Adapted by Jessica Sharzer from Darcey Bell’s novel, Paul Feig presents A Simple Favor as a straightforward narrative. There are no tricks or gimmicks in his filmmaking, and the result is a story that builds absurdity over time so systematically you only notice the movie has gone full batsh*t about two-thirds of the way in. To compare Favor to a Lifetime movie is not an insult in either direction but a reasonable explanation of how this movie functions and just how absurd it gets. Favor has all the twists and unlikely turns of the best Lifetime melodramas, it just presents those events with a comedic slant. And it has all the earmarks of a soap opera—secret twins, arson, incest, murder, secret identities, a philandering husband, day-drinking. It’s a pitch perfect, spot on, blackly comedic take on all those tropes common to salacious “women’s entertainment”, and it does it in a way that actually empowers women.
A lot of that is down to the central pair of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and Emily (Blake Lively). As moms, they are polar opposites. Stephanie is the perpetually cheerful, super engaged, stay-at-home single mom who volunteers for every class project and hosts a DIY mom-centric web series while her kid is at school. In contrast, Emily is a working mother with a high-powered job in the city. She curses and berates and wears a series of fabulous suits, as stylish and cool as Stephanie is dowdy. (Lainey: oh no, Sarah! Don’t mention the suits!) The two make an unlikely pair of friends—so unlikely, everyone thinks Stephanie is working as Emily’s nanny. Of course, nothing is as it seems. When Emily disappears, Stephanie begins investigating, and a steady trickle of reveals about both women begins. Stephanie isn’t quite the dowdy, lonely widow she seems, and Emily turns out to have a haunted mansion full of secrets.
It would be so easy for A Simple Favor to fail, but it doesn’t and it’s entirely because of the performances. Henry Golding is perfect as the clueless husband with a wandering eye, and Blake Lively continues to embrace her B-movie queen abilities and get great results from it. She throws herself into the ludicrousness of her role and plays it all so straight she becomes a hilariously menacing riff on a femme fatale. But it’s Anna Kendrick who really holds it down, giving a flawlessly calibrated performance that is so physically perfect it recalls the work of comedic actresses from another age. She’s always struck me as a modern Myrna Loy, and nowhere is that more apparent than here.
A Simple Favor is a twisted black comedy that takes the latent comedy in a melodramatic murder mystery and makes it overt. Emily wants Stephanie to stop apologizing all the time, the two women consistently see through each other’s deceptions, and the men around them bumble on, clueless and manipulated because they can’t see either woman as fully realized humans with complete agency. There are revelations that will make you gasp and others that will make you scream with laughter. It’s the best black comedy I’ve seen in a while—this is a hard tone to get right, but Feig & Co. nail it. And really, Anna Kendrick’s performance is just perfection.