A Simple Little Favor
Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) makes an unlikely friendship with Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). Emily has a mysterious past and after she vanishes without a trace one day Stephanie takes it upon herself to find out what happen. In digging up Emily’s past we find there are many bodies buried in everyone’s past.
Searching for Gone Girl on a Train with a Dragon Tattoo
When I saw the trailer for A Simple Favor I was pumped to say the least. Anna Kendrick in anything is a must see. I love psychological mystery thrillers such as Gone Girl or even the late summer’s Searching (read the review here). More importantly the marketing for this film had colored me curious. “From the Darker side of the mind” of Paul Feig the trailer boasted. It seemed like Feig was going to take a crack at a straight drama.
When Paul Feig first exploded onto the scene with Bridesmaids I could not have been more thrilled. Bridesmaids was an important film for comedy history, bragging a fully loaded female cast. It launched Kristen Wiig’s career to a new high. Most importantly to me it was extremely funny. The Heat also delivered in a big way, but slowly as his relationship with Melissa McCarthy deepen I started to lose interest(especially because the quality significantly drifted). After running his relationship with McCarthy into the ground it was clear Feig needed a new angle both creatively and commercially. Not only did A Simple Favor deliver the freshness needed, it is Feig’s smartest movie since Bridesmaids.
Anna Kendrick was made to play Stephanie Smothers. In essence, Kendrick and her PR team have been building this exact kind of character into her brand for most of her career. She is Sandra Dee with a mean streak. The core premise of her persona is she’s got a bad girl under her unassuming love of sunshine, rainbows, and puppy dog tails disposition. She is not actually playing against type but rather playing exactly to type that has been willfully constructed. Paul Feig surprises us by casting Kendrick. Sher reveals herself to be who we have come to know her as. Film after film.
This is not to undercut the performance at all. Kendrick slays in A Simple Little Favor. It’s in subtle beats and moments that the layered performance is reveal. My favorite bit in this movie involves her being interrogated in her dead best friends living room as she is stuck in an evening gown. She chooses to manifest her discomfort with the increasing tension of the scene by pulling at the too revealing dress. She is exposed as she literally feels physically exposed. The transformation from ignorant super mom to cunning manipulator is so convincing that it takes the majority of the movie for the viewer to realize how absurd it is.
The Blabber Babe
In keeping with in the tradition of surprising the audience by casting exactly to type, we have Blake Lively as Emily Nelson. In some sense by casting the queen of Gossip Girl as the character discovered to be a heartless, manipulative, con artist who love no one but herself and uses people is not the most original. In fact it might actually be the conceit of the majority of that show. It’s in the comfort of this performance that Feig starts to unravel the archetype.
We are drawn to Emily’s beauty. Her mystique. Her power. While Gossip Girl promised the inner lives of the rich and famous A Simple Little Favor goes straight for the jugular. Emily isn’t just kind of evil she’s super evil. Feig is not afraid to make her completely irredeemable and unlikeable which is something Gossip Girl couldn’t do with its title star. This is why in the end Blake Lively surprises us with her performance. She also plays exactly what we have seen her as without apologies.
Searching for Gone Girl on a Train with a Dragon Tattoo…On Ice
The best part of A Simple Little Favor is at its core it’s a farce. Like Airplane! or Blazing Saddles the film sets out to lampoon the genre it seriously starts in. The shift from straight comedy to serious drama is extremely subtle. Once the film is fully realized with its hidden webcams, double-triple crossings, and increasingly absurd expositions about characters’ shady pasts the path to its end is clear. Part of the fun of A Simple Little Favor is finding the trail Feig leaves once the movie becomes more Flying Circus than Panic Room. From the bizarre French new wave soundtrack, to the counter casting of Kendrick and Lively there were a lot of hints the farce the film was building to. Fieg has left just enough bread crumbs of increasing strangeness for the viewer to have the feeling that there is something wrong, but not enough to put the attentive ones onto the scent outright.
They say that parody is the highest form of flattery. It is clear that the Feig bring a high appreciation for the genre he pokes at, but more importantly he brings a depth of understanding. The structure of the mystery is so sound, the pacing so right, that the audience becomes too wrapped up with the Whodunnit to notice that these characters more closely represent caricatures for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia than the butler in an Agatha Christie novel.
It is in this confusion of the plot thread over the formal structure that the true satire reveals itself. In laughing at the heights of insanity the film crests, one is in essence is laughing at oneself. All film asks its audience for a suspension of disbelief. To get wrapped up into a constructed world you have to check some things at the door. Feig pushes the suspension of disbelief to its absolute breaking point. In breaking this the suspension, the true farce of the flick is revealed. However, the joke isn’t the film. The joke is the audience. The viewer buys into the plot and painstakingly grips to it as it pushes them further and further to a state of discomfort. Laughter becomes an admission of guilt. We were so tied to this being a certain kind of story that we willfully and belligerently ignore the warning signs that it might be a different kind of story. It is here where A Simple Little Favor stops being just a masterful farce and becomes a pertinent film for our times.
There is nothing outwardly defiant about A Simple Little Favor. There’s no talk of snowflakes or MAGA’s. Nothing in that ilk, but make no mistake it is a potent film taking a strong stance. It’s a critique of narrative. In these highly propagandic times, we live in a world that becomes increasingly black and white. Right and wrong. Good vs. evil. Except every side has a perspective on who is right. Who are the heroes. As the partisan divide increases and the sides polarize we continue to lose the ability to think critically. To challenge the narrative. Even to see it. Feig’s film is a reminder that there is always a narrative playing out for us. If we come to something with the predisposition of what we think it is we will work extremely hard to keep that structure no matter how absurd and warped things get.
Paul Feig’s A Simple Little Favor is a true return to form after a few rockier years. He delivers an intriguing exercise in satire of a much beloved genre. It is full of rich performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. On top of being grippingly entertaining both in the drama and comedy departments it leaves the viewer thinking about the power of narrative. It’s the exact film for our times if not in social critique of narrative than in deep rich belly laughs. I would recommend rushing to the theatre to see this film. It makes a great matinee on a lazy, rainy Sunday with a loved one.