Film Review: A Simple Favor

A stylish post-modern film noir directed by Paul Feig, centers around Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a mommy blogger who seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town. Stephanie is joined by Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) in this thriller filled with twists and betrayals, secrets and revelations, love and loyalty, murder and revenge. – Rotten Tomatoes

Not Simple. Not by a long shot.

Let me be clear, I have not read or seen Gone Girl. I recently purchased the book and plan to read it before seeing the movie. Still, I got the impression that A Simple Favor was going to use similar themes and style choices. I also get the impression that that was absolutely true… for the first half. After which, the film spiralled into a very dark comedy of twists and turns, reminiscent of a telenova (or, maybe the filmmaker just binge-watched Jane the Virgin halfway through, and brought some “fresh” ideas to the table). That said, once I accepted the new direction the story was taking, it was still perfectly enjoyable.

The Story Stuff

The Angel/Devil. The Virgin/Whore. The Good Girl/Bad Girl. Call it what you will, these dichotomies of “right” and “wrong” are seen all the time in female characters. They are archetypes that seem absolutely essential to traditional storytelling. So, it follows that modern storytelling enjoys the luxury of being able to play with them. Even if, as in this movie, they do so only a little.

Stephanie and the “Good Mom” Archetype

Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is presented as the absolute model of domesticity. She’s energetic, she’s involved with her son’s school and the community and she’s content. She even mommy-vlogs. She loves being a mother, and she’s good at it. As we learn more about Stephanie, we learn that she has a bit of a sorted past that’s drenched in loss. And yet, none of this takes away from her identity as a Good Mom. And believe me, it IS her identity.

She has no sex life; no romantic life; no social life. People don’t like her because she’s… well… too good. She clearly tries not to let this get her down, but when Emily takes an interest in her, she can’t resist. She wants Emily to like her. She wants to be Emily’s friend. She’ll do anything for Emily. But, of course, Emily is a Bad Mom type, which spells trouble. Lots of it.

Emily and the “Bad Mom” Archetype

When Emily (Blake Lively) gets cornered into a playdate for her son and Stephanie’s, it’s tough to imagine them having anything in common. If this were set in a high school, Stephanie would be the “nerd” and Emily would be the “cool girl.” Nonetheless, Emily pursues Stephanie’s friendship, getting her to try martinis and share secrets. Almost immediately, Emily makes uncomfortable comments about drowning in debt, resenting her husband, and being a “bad mom.”

Emily is also a high-powered professional with a high-profile job, relishing in the “working women have no time for family” trope. She lives lavishly, impulsively and on her own terms – and she makes no apologies for it. In fact, she demands Stephanie stop apologizing in her own everyday life, stating that it’s a “fucked-up women’s habit.”

Character and Story Arcs

Stephanie gets a stronger character arc than Emily, and I would argue that, overall, she’s a much more three-dimensional character. Her good qualities are always in the forefront, she’s strong and responsible and smart. But, she also has some faults. We get this mainly from learning of her dark secret, a taboo relationship that began when she was only 16. She seems like an easy target, someone you can easily take advantage of. But, that’s not the case. As soon as Stephanie feels played, she seeks answers, and revenge. She refuses to let anyone walk all over her (without her permission, anyway). It’s a very likeable character note, which keeps the movie moving forward in interesting ways. She absolutely drives the narrative, and I love that.

Meanwhile, Emily falls very flat as a character. She has only one dimension – screwed up. Her behaviour gets justified through a series of flashbacks and the uncovering of her past; but that doesn’t change the fact that she has only one layer. I suppose this is what makes her a good villain, but it doesn’t make her an interesting one. Emily might be the only thing that is simple about this movie.

The story arc is far from perfect, but it is fun. It starts off intense and heavy on the noir. But as more twists are revealed, it inevitably starts to feel like a satire of the very genre it seemed to be paying homage to. Still, like any good Noir, all the loose ends are tied up at the end. The story even wraps with the lazy plot device of on-screen text to explain what became of our fictional characters. This was an odd choice that I could have done without.

The Film Stuff

The cinematography was kind of dramatic, which matched the eventual noir-satire style it employed. Everything felt a little hyperbolic which made it really fun to watch.

The costumes were a big part of this. Stephanie’s outfits were made to emphasize her happy-housewife personality.

Stephanie outfit 2 (a simple favor)

Emily’s were mainly made up of sleek pant suits that looked as though they had been pulled right out of a 40s gangster-thriller.

Vanity Fair

This contrast worked really well, and came to a head near the end, when Emily donned a stepford-wife-esque dress, harkening back to Stephanie’s comment about martinis reminding her of old-timey TV shows.

Emily's stepford dress (a simple favor)

Vanity Fair

It was a clean movie with well-planned mise-en-scene. I appreciate that and would want to watch it again to absorb more of it.

Final Thoughts

I would watch this movie again. Knowing how the plot unravels will give me a good opportunity to pick up on the genre-winks the filmmaker is probably going for. I think it’s a film that will probably get better with subsequent watches.

Score Card:

1 – Is the story unique and/or interesting? Is it well delivered? (0.5)

The story is really interesting, and it’s a good mystery. But, at a certain point, the film does seem to get away from itself. The shift from mystery/thriller to hyperbolic dark comedy is unexpected and feels almost unplanned.

2 – Are the characters believable, relatable and likeable? (0.5)

I don’t think I’d call any of the characters particularly believable, but they are likeable. Stephanie especially has interesting layers. I like that we are meant to believe she’s a push over, but soon learn that she’s not.

3 – Does the film have a purpose? What is it saying and does it say it well? (1)

I don’t think this is a very meaningful film. I think it’s mostly a modern twist on genres of Hollywood past, and that’s okay. If that’s it’s purpose, I’d say it does it pretty well.

4 – Does the film represent diversity in regards to class, gender/sexuality, and race? If so, are these good representations? (0.5)

Where class is concerned, everyone is currently well off, but anticipating hardship. Debts. Life insurance running out. Money is definitely an issue for all the characters, though we don’t really see it.

In terms of racial diversity, there’s not a whole lot but I like that Emily’s husband is Asian and that it’s never even mentioned. The normalization is refreshing.

In terms of gender/sexuality, it does okay here. Emily and Sean seem to have a healthy sex-life and we do learn that Emily is bi-sexual. It’s not harped on, but I don’t like that it feels a little like it’s there as just another piece of proof that she’s a “bad girl,” or a wild card. Meanwhile, we know that Stephanie doesn’t have a sex life, which suits her all-mom all the time lifestyle. But, eventually, we do find out that Stephanie does have a sexual side and exploring that a little is nice. The last thing I want to note on the topic of sexuality is that there is one male character who I felt was coded gay. This was a bit problematic for me since he’s also the only father attending school activities, which perpetuates the idea that parenting is only a female (or feminine) role.

For gender, I liked that the women are not damseled. They both have really active roles and their decisions drive the narrative.

5 – From a technical point of view, is the movie well put-together? (0.5)

I struggle with this. At first, it really felt like the style-shift was accidental, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it may have been intentional. Either way, it didn’t work all that well for me. I accepted it. I didn’t love it.

Final Score: I give this film 3/5

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2 thoughts on “Film Review: A Simple Favor

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