Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘A Simple Favor’ Is Delightfully Bonkers

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A Simple Favor is a darkly fun and twisted noir thriller. Movies this dark are rarely this stylish, much less this fun. Paul Feig, once again, shows us that he is one of the more underrated directors working today.

Easily the most stylized and impeccably framed of Feig’s movies to date, A Simple Favor is nonetheless knowing and sly in its machinations. A Simple Favor is a movie that earns the adjective “wicked.” Much like The Last Of Sheila, it is a movie that relishes in its characters’ topsy-turvy morals.

The supposed moral center of A Simple Favor is Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a perky, optimistic, doting mother. She’s the type who when she signs up to volunteer for an event at her son’s elementary has to be told not to sign up for all the positions. Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) is a dapper, martini drinking, devil-may-care beauty. She’s not a mother so much as the woman Stephanie wishes she could be.

Odd, since Emily seems to wish she was anybody but Emily. At one point while their sons have a playdate the two moms chat at Emily’s house. Every gushing observation from Stephanie is met by a cutting reveal of the truth of the matter. “I love your house!” “It’s a money pit.” “You are so lucky.” “I want to blow my brains out.”

For all her wry smirking and impeccable fashion sense, Emily is a woman who seems incapable of happiness. But as the movie unfolds we begin to realize that Stephenie, with her cheery demeanor, is racked with grief over the death of her husband and brother. The two women seem drawn to each other, bonded by their deep unrelenting misery.

Feig directs comedies and comedies require tension and knowing when to release the tension. A Simple Favor bubbles with tension from the first frame and spends the rest of the movie building to a crescendo. The clever thing is how we don’t even realize the tension is even there until mid-way through the movie.

John Schwartzman, the cinematographer, has each scene carefully and artfully framed. From the get-go, A Simple Favor feels like a movie that has been tailored and crafted. Feig and Schwartzman ensure each line and scene are perfectly measured, cut, and lit. For all the stylization Feig never allows it to overwhelm the movie. Despite the bonkers twists and turns, the bug-nutty reveals, Emily and Stephanie are deeply grounded, albeit complex characters.

The script by Jessica Sharzer deftly plays with the what we as a society deem “the ideal.” Sly and subversive as the credits rolled I didn’t half wonder that despite the film’s posturing if it was actually rooting for Emily rather than Stephanie. Stepping back it’s important to note that A Simple Favor is told largely through Stephanie’s eyes. It goes without saying that by the end we soon realize Stephanie isn’t a reliable narrator.

Pay attention and you’ll notice the subtle difference in how Lively plays Emily in both Stephanie’s memories and how she plays her in her own memory. In some ways, the tragedy of A Simple Favor is Stephanie’s ultimate betrayal of Emily. While you may disagree with that after seeing the film, I would argue there are at all times three different narratives going on.

The first is Stephanie’s. The mommy vlogger who makes a new best friend with someone she sees as the ideal version of herself. The second is Emily’s who we see has lost so much and has realized she cannot bear to lose more. The third is Feig, who is bound by cinematic and narrative morality to feign siding with Stephanie but who we feel secretly and wholly sides with Emily.

Lively has long been an actress underserved by the industry. Feig allows for Lively to give a nuanced and textured performance as a mother who discovers she really will do anything for her child. Not to mention, like Feig himself, she plumbs the depth of a tortured psyche while dishing out razor sharp insults without so much as batting a perfectly brushed eyelash. It is the type of performance that at once moves us while vibrating at a near perfect melodramatic pitch.

Kendrick’s Stephanie is a coiled spring of neurosis and desperate loneliness. Her idolization of Emily borders on fetishization. Kendrick’s Stephanie is a woman uncomfortable with her own power but who sees in Emily the realization of her potential. It is a role Kendrick has played multiple times but here she manages to hit notes within the character that lesser directors have kept her from exploring.

When Stephanie begins to dance to a classic French pop song, Emily watches bemusedly. Stephanie realizes she is being watched and stops, embarrassed. We realize, much like Emily, we’ve just seen Stephanie be genuinely happy and carefree. It is a brief moment played out between the smiles of each actress while the awkwardness is smoothed over by Sharzer’s witty dialogue.

You may have noticed I have been circumspect about what exactly A Simple Favor is about exactly. I’m not a man who believes in spoilers. Increasingly I’ve taken to dismissing the notion of such a thing more and more.

But there are films in which going in knowing as little as possible is part of the fun. I’m not saying that if you happen to know what transpires before going in, A Simple Favor will be ruined for you. Far from it. But going in blind can add a layer of unbridled joy that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.

I will merely say that A Simple Favor is a slick and stylish noir that is as dastardly as it is deliciously twisted. Sharzer’s script allows for the reading of something a little more than a budding friendship between Emily and Stephanie. At one point we even learn of a past woman loving woman relationship Emily had.

But Sharzer and Feig carefully and deliberately imply and play this without implying the stuff that is wrong with them is intricately tied to the bisexuality/lesbianism. In other words, they are aware of the psycho lesbian or the murderous bi-sexual tropes. Great strides are taken so that the sexuality or the intimacy shared is never viewed as the thing that is wrong or frowned upon.

Having drinks one afternoon Stephanie drunkenly confesses to Emily a long-buried and shameful secret. She breaks down crying, Emily holds her and the two kiss. Stephanie pulls away and apologizes but Emily dismisses it. “It’s okay, It’s nothing big. It’s just a kiss.”

The sex scenes in A Simple Favor, despite being directed by one, seem to eschew the male gaze. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) throws Stephanie onto the bed and begins to joyously and sensually go down on her. The camera stays on Stephanie’s face as she writhes with ecstasy. While Sean is a pivotal character, at no point is either Feig or Sharzer ever really interested in his sexual satisfaction. Much like with Stephanie, his sex scenes with Emily are shot from the waist up. It’s Emily’s pleasure we’re meant to see and empathize with.

Noirs are a genre of film whose own definition is nebulous and at times weirdly undefined. Often it is defined by style more than content or setting. But what noir ultimately is, is the exploration of the tragedy of fate. When we watch a noir we see characters trapped either by their own obsessions, beliefs, actions, or circumstances. A Simple Favor is a noir that checks all of the above.

We witness a chain of events that once put into motion becomes impossible to derail or stop. The only option is to merely sit back, watch, and marvel at the simply gorgeous and impeccably tailored lady suits.

Few movies can pull off the high wire act of the film’s denouement. A clandestine meeting in a graveyard between Emily and Stephanie as they use a tombstone as a bar to fix some martinis. Emily is garnished in a brilliant white pinstriped suit, without an undershirt, twirling a cane, while spewing a delightful impossibly over the top exposition dump. Guys, I’m telling you it’s amazing.

Renee Ehrlich Kalfus did the costume design. I mention her name because her role in A Simple Favor is as important as Feig’s, Sharzer’s, Schwartzman’s, or the editor’s Brent White. Emily’s and Stephanie’s outfit tell stories as well as give us hints at their psyche.

Mark Twain famously quipped, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Women, especially have long been judged by the clothes they wear. Pleasing a patriarchy is a futile effort as any woman will tell you since no matter the outfit it seems as if women are in some ways always “asking for it.”

Kalfus uses color and style to give us a glimpse into not just how Emily and Stephanie think and feel. More importantly, the outfits give us an insight into how they wish to be perceived. In the beginning, the desire is controlling the perception of how the outside world views them. But as A Simple Favor tap dances toward the end it becomes clear they are trying to control how they are perceived by each other.

A Simple Favor is a slick and sumptuous noir that reminds us that there’s no reason this can’t be fun. Feig has made a joyous and knowing celebration of women behaving badly while never being judgmental or condescending about it. These women rejoice in their shortcomings, consequences be damned. Women are rarely allowed to be this complicated, this fun, or this weird and twisted. If A Simple Favor is any indication of what we’re missing then it is a crying shame.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

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