One commercial for the suspense thriller A Simple Favor describes it as coming “from the darker side of Paul Feig.” Feig, of course, is the director who gave us the excellent comedies Bridesmaids and Spy and the recent Ghostbusters reboot. But the beauty of A Simple Favor lies not in its darkness, but its lightness. It’s that rarest of creatures: a funny film noir.
Feig has already demonstrated a knack for turning genre films on their heads. Spy was essentially a madcap Bond film, with female heroes and villains. As for Ghostbusters, well, you already know how he flipped the script on that one.
Here, the film noir genders are reversed: Yes, we have a beautiful femme fatale (Blake Lively), but the mark is not a haplessly horny man but a starstruck mommy vlogger (Anna Kendrick), who can’t believe this glamazon is paying attention to her.
Stephanie (Kendrick) is the kind of prissy, perfectionist mom that all the other class moms—and one cheerfully bitchy class dad, played by the always welcome Andrew Rannells—resent. (She signs up for all the volunteer positions on a class field trip. And her mommy vlog is specifically designed to make other moms feel inadequate.)
One day, an impossibly chic mother named Emily (Lively) shows up at school, exiting her car stilettos first. She and Stephanie clearly have nothing in common, except their sons demand a play date, and once the tongue-tied Stephanie agrees to a mid-afternoon martini, Emily invites her over.
Emily’s house is a sleek, minimalist manse, with an in-your-face painting of a naked Emily—or, more accurately, Emily’s naked crotch—hanging in the living room. The well-appointed closet looks like something out of Vogue. Emily keeps insisting that she sank way too much money in the house and she’s cash poor, but she certainly seems like a woman who has it all.
These early scenes between Emily and Stephanie—with Stephanie awkwardly stammering and desperate to appear nonchalant and Emily serving up blonde bombshell glamour and irresistible bitchiness—are the best in the film. The two actresses are wonderful. For Lively, this is her Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct moment: She stomps through the film like a femme fatale warrior—so gorgeous and mysterious and alluring, it was like she was constructed in a lab to the play this part. As for Kendrick, this is the best she’s been since Up in the Air. She brings her keen intelligence, demure sexiness, and (pitch) perfect comic timing to what ends up being a surprisingly complex character.
Emily’s beautiful house and beautiful life comes complete with a beautiful husband, Sean (Crazy Rich Asian’s Henry Golding), who seems to be in love with his wife, but is it all a ruse? This is one of many questions the film asks when Emily suddenly goes missing—and Stephanie goes into Nancy Drew mode, even as she finds herself increasingly drawn to Sean.
There are many twists and turns once Emily disappears, as one might expect, but the film is anchored by the wonderful lead performances and its nimble, knowing script. (Also, kudos to costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus: Emily’s dickey, that she rips off with an impatient flourish early in the film, is the stuff memes are made of. And Stephanie’s pom-pom-on-polka-dot ensemble is a character-defining sight gag.)
In the end, it all kind of goes off the rails, but who cares? By that point, we’ve had way too much fun to concern ourselves with boring things like logic.