Generally speaking, I’m much more tolerant of Paul Feig in theory than in practice — so imagine my surprise when, coming in relatively blind on his mom-noir A Simple Favor with understandably tempered expectations, I found it to be a deceptively compelling pulpy genre mashup. It’s not that Feig is an inherently bad filmmaker, but given his typically comedic milieu, I felt certain that Favor would run aground the unforgiving rocks of tonal dissonance. Instead, it’s a film that tactfully blends acerbic wit, black comedy and classic noir nihilism in a trashy little package engineered to appeal not only to Investigation Discovery bingeing housewives, but to their harried husbands as well.
A Simple Favor plays like the kind of lowbrow paperback thriller you’d find in the discount bin at the drug store, at least back when people actually read books and drugstores used to sell them. Its plot is overly convoluted, its characters boast ludicrous backstories and make occasionally incomprehensible decisions, and it seems that the only two interactions that can take place between people are sex or murder — sometimes both. What saves Favor from descending into full-blown camp is its level of self-awareness, indulging in its over-the-top antics with a wink and a nudge that belies the darkness of its themes. If the Coens reinvigorated the byzantine plotting of film noir with a heavy dose of farce for The Big Lebowski, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, working from a novel by Darcey Bell, liven up their pseudo-noir with pointed social satire — a snide twist of lemon in a gin martini of iniquity.
The titular “simple favor” is innocuous enough — glamorous New York PR exec Emily (Blake Lively) asks ebullient new friend, recently widowed mommy vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), to pick up her son from school. But from there, things descend into a twisted world of death, infidelity, insurance fraud and unlikely sleuthing that could have been pulled from any classic noir. It’s a little Double Indemnity, a little The Postman Always Rings Twice, and a lot of middle-class suburban mom jokes. It’s a pairing every bit as incongruous as the odd-couple friendship that develops between Emily and Stephanie, but Lively and Kendrick know how to sell it.
Feig has developed a reputation for depicting convincing female friendship with a level of insight few other directors have, and the dynamic that Kendrick and Lively establish is among the most engaging and entertaining in the director’s corpus to date. Somewhat more surprisingly, Feig has also demonstrated an unexpected knack as a stylist with Favor, elucidating character through visual means by way of wardrobe and setting while throwing in a few inspired visual flourishes to boot.
A Simple Favor is not a perfect film by any means. Sharzer’s script is occasionally a bit too on the nose — you don’t need a line of dialogue referencing Cluzot’s Les Diaboliques for me to know what you were getting at here — and it’s significantly over-plotted, especially in the third act. Whether or not this was by design becomes irrelevant when such decisions detract from the film as a whole. Still, Feig has produced one of his most gratifyingly atypical works to date, Kendrick and Lively carry the film with style and charm, and Sharzer packs enough salaciousness and smarm into her narrative and dialogue to keep the film moving along at a brisk pace. It may not be simple, but it’s more than favorable. Rated R.