With almost twenty years experience behind the camera, director Paul Feig often demonstrates an ability to tell a wide variety of stories spanning genres and eras. In his most recent film, Feig does it again with A Simple Favor. The seemingly small September release shows itself to be an innovative work of genre cinema, taking a much needed feminist spin on a traditionally masculine style.
A Simple Favor follows mommy “vlogger” Stephanie (Anna Kendrick). She’s that girl everyone pretends to hate, but in truth we want to be just like her… don’t we all wish we looked that together? A play date with her son’s best friend introduces her to Emily (Blake Lively). Emily is that girl we all openly wished we were… fashionable clothes, a good job and a hot husband (Henry Golding). The women are fast, but seemingly unlikely friends. However, things are soon thrown for a loop when Emily mysteriously disappears. Suddenly, Stephanie finds herself mired in not only an investigation, but also with Emily’s grief-stricken husband and son clinging to her for support. Paul Feig directs the film from a script by Jessica Sharzer.
The always stylish Feig brings together a talented creative team to craft a delightfully candy-coated aesthetic. The visual flair in this film is absolutely stunning. Everything about A Simple Flavor pops off the screen, from the sublime (and the classic Hollywood influenced) costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, to the rich production design by Jefferson Sage, and a toe-tapping soundtrack comprised of French pop standards. Emily’s costumes in particular are second to none in their ability to not only develop her character arc, but also absolutely shine when she’s on-screen. Kalfus deserves definite attention for her work on this movie as award season rolls around. (Hint! Hint!).
Feig crafts a unique and original tone in A Simple Favor. Hollywood isn’t afraid to drift back to film noir (remember Brick?), but in this movie Feig creates a feminist take on the stylistic movement popular during the post World War II era. In a series of features which often regulate women to the good girl/femme fatale dichotomy, A Simple Favor lets the ladies step out from the two dimensional archetypes weighing them down.
The film begins (and is peppered) with excerpts from Stephanie’s “vlogs”, which translates onscreen to a twenty-first century equivalent of hard-boiled narration. Who would have through Anna Kendrick could be a new Philip Marlowe? It is Stephanie’s perspective which dominates the narrative. While Emily would be a stellar femme fatale in any work of noir, Lively’s calculated and intelligent performance allows Emily to dictate the course of the story. In the 1940s, a femme fatale often found herself at the mercy of the masculine world surrounding her. However, as A Simple Favor reaches its eventual conclusion we realize one thing, this is Emily’s world and we’re all just living in it.
Sharzer and Feig inject an unflinchingly feminist note into A Simple Favor. These female characters are clearly fleshed out, from Stephanie’s desire to simply have a friend to Emily’s struggles with deep-seeded “mommy” insecurities, to the crippling debt and job struggles straining at her relationship with her husband. Both bring their own motives to the narrative, showing themselves as strong and intelligent women in their own right.
At the same time, the film resists the urge to adopt the age old “male gaze” and sexualize its female characters. A particularly telling moment exists towards the end of the second act as Stephanie falls into bed with (spoiler!). In the moment, Stephanie is on the receiving end of what must be immensely enjoyable “oral stimulation”. In a story coming from a male perspective, the emphasis in a scene like this places the enjoyment of the male partner as paramount. This often means the woman finds herself either overtly sexualized or is tasked with simply delivering pleasure to the man. Neither happens in this sequence, instead allowing Stephanie to lay on the bed and simply revel in the moment as her partner focuses completely on her enjoyment. This is the only moment like this in A Simple Favor, and it is a telling narrative choice.
On-top of the stellar performances by the two female leads, Henry Golding puts forward an understated, yet equally calculating take on Emily’s husband Sean. Coming off a heck of a summer with his success in Crazy Rich Asians, the still new Golding continues to show just how good he is. Golding makes solid use of his immense likability to blur his character’s narrative beats. The script often reminds us that the husband is usually involved… however, is that true in this case? The character often straddles a tricky line, alternating as an “homme fatale” and good-boy with lightening frequency. In particular, Golding is noticeably strong in his exploration of Sean as a grieving husband and father, leading to increased tension in the story.
While A Simple Favor seems to have snuck up on a great many people in this ultra quiet September movie month, do yourself a favor and check this one out. The always delightful Paul Feig crafts a unique and interesting feminist take on the traditionally masculine film noir. A Simple Favor is fun, innovative and a genuinely enjoyable work of cinema. Don’t miss this movie.
A Simple Favor is playing now in theaters around the country.
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