The marketing for A Simple Favor threw a lot of people for a loop, myself included. Advertising the "darker side of Paul Feig," it seemed like the comedy director known for Bridesmaids and Spy was trying his hand at something akin to a cross between the lurid atmosphere of David Fincher's Gone Girl and a sexy French-inspired mystery thriller, which understandably caused a lot of whiplash from heads turning to exclaim their baffled confusion.
But here's the thing: that advertising is absolute bullshit. A Simple Favor is a mystery thriller in the same way that Spy is an espionage film. Technically the label applies because the obligatory story beats are all present, but Feig is way more interested in building a comedy on the skeleton of another genre than he is in building tension and intrigue. And in that sense, A Simple Favor is about as good as Feig has ever been, funny and insightful into the minds of its female leads, albeit with a few caveats that speak to his lack of comfort with his genre of choice this time around.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a single mother, lonely with only followers of her vlog to keep her company, overly enthusiastic about being in her young son's life, and the object of ridicule from other parents for generally being strange. This is until Stephanie strikes an unlikely friendship with Emily (Blake Lively), a high-powered working mom who has a particular love of martinis and clearly has more on her mind than what she shares with anyone, including her husband Sean (Henry Golding). Spending afternoons together as their sons have playdates, Stephanie becomes enthralled by Emily's dark humor and devil may care attitude, even though Emily is strangely cagey about revealing details of her own past. When Emily one day asks Stephanie to pick her son up from school, Emily disappears for days, provoking a police investigation that reveals that Stephanie might not know as much about her new best friend as she thinks she does.
If you've seen another Paul Feig comedy, you know exactly what you're getting here, despite all the pretense toward serious drama. This is primarily a film in which women are given room to stretch their comedic wings, with Kendrick affecting an uproarious eager-to-please naiveté that flourishes into an awkward self-confidence, while Lively is the vision of cool collection, always with an acerbic comment on the tip of her tongue. And the faux-French erotic thriller tone Feig creates is a convincing facsimile, developing intrigue with a divide between Stephanie's middle-class origins and Emily's enigmatic wealth. Major credit goes to costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, who not only makes a creative use of Kendrick's craft-mom persona, but is singularly responsible for pushing Lively into the pantheon of queer lady style goals with the likes of Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson. Hot. Damn.
Unfortunately, A Simple Favor comes apart at the seams where Feig attempts to stretch outside his humorous comfort zone for the sake of the mystery plot. Sometimes this tonal disparity works to the film's benefit, with grinning montages or punchlines giving way to sudden, shocking realizations that effectively jerk the audience out of their complacency. But just as often the jokes butt heads with the dramatic stakes, deflating tension rather than enhancing it, and it creates this cognitive dissonance between enjoying the humor and remaining engaged in the mystery. It further doesn't help that the solution to the mystery is rote in its predictability, or that Stephanie has a dark past of her own which, while bizarrely fascinating, doesn't add a thing to her character arc or the central intrigue. There are moments when Henry Golding's dramatic performance is straight-faced enough to make you forget the basic plot machinations at play, but the twists and turns ultimately boil down to something a bit too reductively simple.
Even so, Paul Feig is not a director whose work you seek out for high stakes, and the moments when Feig downplays those stakes are when A Simple Favor shines. It's a little messy and unfocused, but the performances are top notch charismatic gold, more than enough to surprise audiences expecting a straight thriller and reflective of Feig's best work as an actor's director, not to mention some of the best comedy work of Kendrick's and Lively's acting careers. The darker side of Paul Feig may not be much of a palette shift, but it's an ample demonstration of why Feig doesn't need that much range anyway.