The name Paul Feig is closely associated with comedy but with “A Simple Favor” he takes a step away from the laughs to present a story of intrigue and suspense that begins with a friend asking for a little help.
The labyrinthine plot begins with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), the plucky single mom of a young son. She’s a keener, a food vlogger who is always the first to volunteer for everything at her son’s school. When she meets Emily (Blake Lively), the blunt talking mother of her son’s schoolmate, she is smitten. Stephanie is lonely, a widower who pours herself into work and her son’s life. With Emily she discovers the pleasures of pouring a martini in the afternoon as a “reset” for the day. The pair bond almost immediately despite Emily’s warning, “You do not want to be friends with me, trust me.”
When Emily asks Stephanie for the “simple favour,” of picking her son up after school, the eager mom agrees. Trouble is, Emily disappears into the great wide open, leaving Stephanie stuck with a child and grieving husband (Henry Golding). As she struggles to find closure and poke around in the corners of Emily’s life she discovers her friend wasn’t quite the person she thought she was. “Secrets are like margarine,” Steph says, “easy to spread but bad for the heart.”
From here the film deep dives into a twisty-turny story of intrigue, misplaced love and insurance scams.
Midway through Stephanie asks, “Are you trying to Diabolique me?” It’s a call back to a 1955 psychological thriller that saw terrible people plan a murder while maintaining a perfect alibi. There are missing bodies and other comparisons to “A Simple Favor” but the similarities end there. Feig gets great performances from Kendrick and Lively but is a bit too leisurely in getting into the meat of the matter.
The opening scenes of the friendship building between the two women sparkle. Kendrick is wide eyed and naïve, with just a hint of the darkness that may lie beneath her perfectly manicured soccer mom exterior. By comparison Lively is an exotic beast, decked out in designer clothes and perfectly tousled main of blonde hair. Her candour puts Stephanie and the audience off balance. She loves her son Nikki, but money woes occupy her mind. Despite living in a rand home with all the amenities she’s on the verge of bankruptcy. “The nicest thing I could do for Nikki,” she says, “is blow my brains out.” Their friendship always seemed unconventional but Emily’s frankness hints at what is to come.
That’s the good stuff. From there “A Simple Favor” becomes a maze of good and bad intentions, fake outs, incest and gaslighting. Motivations shift and the twists pile up as the plot takes a darker tone. Trouble is, it takes too long to get where it is going. The interplay between the characters remains enjoyable but as they become increasingly unreliable narrators the story feels convoluted and stretched.