“You can get close to her, but you can never quite reach her,” Sean Townsend explains about his wife, Emily Nelson. Illustrating the enigmatic Emily, Sean, played by Henry Golding, alludes to the overall essence of Paul Feig’s film “A Simple Favor.” Stylish, twisted and surprisingly comical, “A Simple Favor” is a fun and engaging film helmed by the ever-charismatic pair of Anna Kendrick, who plays Stephanie Smothers, and Blake Lively, who plays Emily, that leaves the viewer incessantly trying to solve the mystery until the very end.
In anticipation of the film’s release, Jay Strafford from the Richmond Times Dispatch characterized “A Simple Favor” as “‘Gone Girl’ gone nuclear, ‘Gone Girl’ on steroids, amphetamines and cocaine.” This comparison, however, is inadequate. Though the trailer may emit “Gone Girl”-esque vibes, there is a massive disparity between the tones of the two films. The myriad complex narratives that “A Simple Favor” dares to tackle also create a significant distinction.
To call “A Simple Favor” a paradigm for the mystery-thriller genre would be wrong. The premise of Stephanie attempting to solve the disappearance of her friend Emily certainly subscribes to the label of a dramatic mystery, but the comedic background of director Paul Feig, whose past films include “The Heat” and “Spy,” complicates the film’s identity. Were it not for the charisma and strength of the cast, this intermingling of disparate genres may have completely backfired.
The actors’ natural chemistry and their ability to live up to the extravagance of their respective characters enable Feig to successfully add a sense of weight while simultaneously allowing the audience to have fun with the film. Once the viewer accepts that it is meant to be comedic and exciting in contrast to other films billed like it, “A Simple Favor” instantly becomes more enjoyable. If taken too seriously, the film’s heightened exaggeration and sheer amount of plot twists would reach a point of ridiculousness.
Additionally, it is important to note that the underlying aspects of “A Simple Favor” like the soundtrack, costume design and setting contribute just as significantly to the overall production as do the dialogue and plot. The soundtrack of “A Simple Favor,” arranged by U.S. composer Theodore Shapiro, is composed entirely of songs in French, including “Poisson Rouge” and “Comment te dire adieu.” In the words of Stephanie, the music fashions a distinct “high-tone” ambience. Alongside the posh air, the music also helps to establish the sexually charged nature of the film between all three of its main characters, particularly between the female leads.
The heightened importance of wardrobe and setting is unsurprising given Feig’s penchant for style, which he has discussed in previous interviews. “A Simple Favor” effectively riffs off the value of appearances in modern society, whether it be through Stephanie trying to seem like a put-together stay-at-home mom with nothing to hide or Emily as a wealthy successful businesswoman who commands the room.
Moreover, the film’s recurring topic of being “house poor” serves as the perfect metaphor for the actions of the characters. While the house they are trapped in appears beautiful and perfect, tension and failure lurk within. Production designer Jefferson Sage and set decorator Patricia Larman represented the dichotomy between Emily and Stephanie through their homes.
Furthermore, the film’s costume designer, Renée Ehrlich Kalfus, used clothing to create a subconscious understanding of the personalities and power dynamics between Kendrick’s and Lively’s characters. Kendrick is dressed in bright, colorful and playful outfits that characterize her role as a naive “mommy vlogger,” whereas Lively spends most of the film in elegant and gorgeous power suits that are also feminine and sexy.
Establishing this dynamic deftly sets up Stephanie’s character development, which is integral to the exciting and shocking elements of the film and expressed through the evolution of her clothes. Emily’s outfits are almost so extreme that she appears to be playing a character. Nevertheless, her wardrobe is essential in establishing her mystique. Just like the overall tone of the movie, Emily is incredibly exaggerated, but her eccentricity is part of what makes her character fun and engaging. It is clear who the alpha is, and Emily’s dominant persona further adds to Stephanie’s adoration of Emily.
Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, observed in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that the female body is a source of visual pleasure and objectification for the spectator, who is traditionally male. However, in “A Simple Favor,” we see a challenge of gender norms in having a female at both ends of the interaction; Stephanie is completely infatuated with Emily and frequently vocalizes her admiration.
This unconventional blend of the masculine and feminine is further evidenced by the frequently profane Emily, who calls out Stephanie on the harmful habits, such as over-apologizing, that come as a result of trying to fit the female stereotype. One of the film’s best qualities is that it portrays a broad range of femininity and how Emily can be both strong and very feminine.
While the film breaks boundaries in many ways, it plays into some tropes as well. For example, Emily and Stephanie serve as the archetypal working mom versus stay-at-home mother. Emily’s maternal instinct is her main redeeming quality. The two characters meet through their kids. Clothing and house design are major players. However, the tropes of the film play into the appearance of normalcy, only to make the ultimate subversion more shocking.
Feig’s decision to break conventional gender norms in his film is also shown in how the role of the husband, rather than the wife, is undervalued. Though Sean, played by Henry Golding from the recent blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians,” is one of the three principal characters, his actions are inconsequential, his character is relatively flat and static, and he predominantly serves as an object of sexual desire. Nevertheless, Golding still successfully plays off both Lively and Kendrick with a similar charm seen in his previous work.
“A Simple Favor” boasts a strong cast, stunning visuals and costume design that carry the film through an exaggerated and tumultuous plot, ultimately resulting in dark comedy rather than a dark mystery. There is a method behind the madness and chaos exhibited in the trailer: It reveals enough to intrigue audiences but masterfully succeeds in concealing the magnitude of the perfect storm to come.