A Simple Favor is one of the most delightful movies of the year. It’s a showcase for a pair of actresses who’ve yet to receive the respect they deserve as a pair of our smartest and most unique actresses working today. It’s directed by Paul Feig who continues to be one of the most unique voices in film, an ostensibly comic voice and yet one who, in one movie, can evoke Hitchcock, the French New Wave and I Love Lucy.
A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie a Type A mom who volunteers for every committee at her son’s school and at home, runs a V-Log for moms with helpful tips for everything from meals to laundry. It’s established that Stephanie doesn’t have many friends and isn’t particularly well liked by the mom’s in her suburb. Then, Stephanie meets Emily (Blake Lively) who sparks something in Stephanie that she never imagined was there.
Emily is a fascinating person and not merely because she is beautiful. She’s witty, she’s self-assured to the point of open narcissism, and she wields words like daggers when she feels like it. You can sense that Emily takes to Stephanie as a cat might to a mouse, with the full intention of eating her alive but far more interested in entertaining herself first. Equally overmatched by Emily is Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding).
Listen to the way Emily talks about him, openly insulting him, confessing their marital and financial issues to Stephanie in order to self servingly emasculate Sean as part of whatever game she’s playing at the moment to amuse herself. Watch the way she makes a big show of making out with him before once again openly dismissing him. She’s looking for a reaction from Stephanie and is amused to find out what that reaction will be.
I absolutely adore Blake Lively’s performance in A Simple Favor and would be willing to support an Academy Award campaign. Her performance is relaxed and confident and yet she makes Emily feel as if everything is of the moment and off the cuff. You get the sense that though she may have long term plans in mind, that the reality is, she’s always looking to be amused or surprised and does things to discover reactions not with a calculation of what the reaction will be.
It is a delicate performance, attempting to appear glib without actually coming off that way. She’s provocative for the sake of pushing an agenda but she also appears to be discovering her agenda as she goes along. This plays out brilliantly in the plot of the movie which unfolds in a way that appears deliberate but when you take a step back, you realize that it’s all been off the cuff and by the seat of Emily’s gorgeously fitted pant suits.
The far more deliberate character is Stephanie and while she is consistently shocked and surprised, her actions have far more intent than Emily’s. When Emily goes missing Stephanie deliberately and earnestly sets out to try to find her friend. That she winds up looking a little crazy is part and parcel of her genuine attempt to find her friend and then becomes the genuine and earnest attempt to solve a mystery.
Anna Kendrick is equally as wonderful as Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. Though she appears to be carrying far more of the comic weight of the movie, Kendrick manages to maintain Stephanie’s dignity and intelligence while also being very fun. She’s riding the most delicate line in the movie because if Stephanie tips to far over into parody the plot won’t work. Kendrick toes that line brilliantly.
One of the more unusual influences on Kendrick's performance, in my opinion, is Lucille Ball. Stephanie has a similarly awkward quality to her that always came out of Lucy when she was trying to get into Ricky's show. Stephanie wants desperately to be Emily's friend, that's the show she wants to be part of. And when Emily goes missing, there is a caper quality to Emily shambling but intentional 'investigation' of Emily's disappearance that plays like that of a classic sitcom character.
That she can evoke Lucy, right down to the style of dress she prefers, and still make the sexy, thriller portions of A Simple Favor work is a testament to Anna Kendrick's remarkable versatility. She has her innocent and not so innocent qualities and through her earnestness, she combines them into a believable and entertaining character that is both broad and sympathetic, awkward and attractive. It's an incredibly deft performance.
Director Paul Feig is known for broad comedy in movies like the recent Ghostbusters remake, Bridesmaids and his many other collaborations with Melissa McCarthy. He’s the last director I would expect to evoke elements of Alfred Hitchcock and The French New Wave but indeed he does in A Simple Favor. His direction of A Simple Favor is stylish, smart, witty and wildly entertaining in the same way the influences I mentioned were in their best films.
Like Hitchcock, Feig takes a character who could stand in easily for us all in Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie, achingly normal in her dress and manner, and places her in a situation well above her head. Then, of course, there is the blonde. Hitchcock would have loved Blake Lively. Lively effortlessly evokes Tippi Hedren in Marnie, another pernicious and impulsive character though one who doesn’t have quite the bearing and unending confidence of Lively’s Emily.
In case you doubt the Hitchcock influence on A Simple Favor for a moment I urge you to look back to the top of this page at that poster. If you can't see the obvious influence of the great Saul Bass in that poster you are clearly in contrarian mode. Bass was the artist that Hitchcock turned to for his iconic opening credits in North by Northwest and you can see a similar influence in the opening credits of A Simple Favor.
The French New Wave influence on A Simple Favor comes much from the fact that the New Wave was greatly inspired by Hitchcock but, there is also the look of the movie. Though the sixties in general is a big influence on the style as well, look at the color and the effortless almost commonplace opulence of the sets in A Simple Favor. That’s just the kind of thing Truffaut and others were brilliant at portraying, the hapless wealth and depravity of the upper class.
The more time I spend thinking about A Simple Favor, the more I adore it. Admittedly, the film is rather slight, it doesn’t have large themes or any sort of message behind it. It’s simply a thrilling bit of highly artful entertainment. I wasn’t deeply moved by it but it’s not that kind of movie. This is a comic thriller with the intent of distracting and deli