Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
A SIMPLE FAVOR
Every filmmaker wants to be Alfred Hitchcock. However, not all filmmakers can be Alfred Hitchcock. Though many twisty, turny thrillers are compared to the British auteur’s works, most never warrant such high praise. It takes a certain level of precision, wit and intelligence to earn that kind of acclaim. And boy does director Paul Feig earn it with A SIMPLE FAVOR.
Based on Darcey Bell’s best-selling novel, this highly subversive “suburban noir” turns a tawdry beach read into a gorgeous, fanciful vision through Feig’s lens. Dealing with the loss of domestic bliss, it’s the darkly comic neighbor of director David Fincher and author Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. While channeling influences from timeless cinematic classics by Henri-Georges Clouzot (DIABOLIQUE, which gets a mention) and Hitchcock (a ghost of REBECCA haunts the picture briefly), Feig’s feature finds its own one-of-a-kind signature voice. It houses a pristine pop aesthetic and finishes clean with a diabolical, seductive, and warped delivery.
Stay-at-home, single-mommy vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is the type of perfect, overachieving, insufferable mom who makes the other parents (played like a Greek chorus by Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack and Aparna Nancherla) in their idyllic town seethe with snark and resentment. She makes Martha Stewart look like a slacker and Gwyneth Paltrow “goop” her pants. But it’s a chance invitation for a playdate between kids, and with ostracized mom Emily (Blake Lively, who’s so shrewd here), that changes everything in Stephanie’s world. Stephanie looks at high-powered PR-exec Emily as everything she’s not: high-class, headstrong, hard-edged and happily married. The one thing that unites the pair? They both have deep, hidden secrets. One day Emily suddenly disappears, leaving Stephanie to unravel the mystery of where her new best friend might have gone.
There are myriad ingredients and thematic sensibilities that Bell’s book and Jessica Sharzer’s adapted screenplay share with Flynn’s book and the subsequent Flynn and Fincher adaptation. Both posit clear sentiments about the façade of suburbia’s polished shellac and marital discord and disillusionment. They both function as commentaries on the female identity in exhilarating ways – a manner that harkens back to classic Hollywood features starring unapologetic femme fatales. In Feig’s film, we’re lucky to witness two dynamically written female characters engage with each other (and not solely about a man). Each gradually takes on the other’s identity, not just through narrative cues, but also through costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ impeccable, tremendous work with the subtleties and nuance of the characters. Changes in wardrobe (utilizing specific color-coding and aesthetic style) are key to the characters’ development. Lively’s masculine/ feminine look is bound to have the target audience questioning their sexuality. Tonally, the two stories also share a pitch-black comedy streak – A SIMPLE FAVOR just ratchets up the dial to 11.
Nevertheless, it’s in those varying degrees of high-gloss camp where the magic and mayhem of this picture can be found. The proceedings assuredly go bonkers in the most delightful of ways. Emily rocking a cane with a silver skull on the handle will elicit glee. Stephanie’s visits with Emily’s boss Dennis (Rupert Friend, who’s this year’s sneaky MVP when it comes to comedic supporting performances), her ex-flame Diana (Linda Cardellini), and shady lady Margaret (played by Jean Smart), are all part of this film’s allure and our gay revelry. By not treating Emily’s dashing writer husband Sean (Henry Golding) as a prize for either woman, the film scores not only a win for feminism, but also a stinging comedic zing.
Juxtaposed with the dark tones of a thriller, we’re also treated to John Schwartzman’s saturated, brightly lit cinematography, Jefferson Sage’s sleek production design, and needle drops from the French sixties pop soundtrack. Feig has finely chiseled a fully cinematic thriller with flair.
A SIMPLE FAVOR opens on September 14.