A Simple Favor, though thrilling, struggles to find emotional balance

By COLE DOUGLASS | September 20, 2018

Public Domain Blake Lively stars in new film A Simple Favor alongside Anna Kendrick

A Simple Favor can best be understood by looking at its central characters. On the one hand, you have Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a dedicated and overachieving single mother who runs a parenting vlog and is easily flustered whenever she ends up in an unusual or stressful situation. On the other, there’s Emily (Blake Lively), the foul-mouthed and wealthy best friend whose mysterious demeanor hides a host of dangerous secrets just beneath the surface. The unlikely friendship between the two drives much of the film’s plot, and A Simple Favor likewise tries to merge their characterizations into something that is equal parts wacky comedy and ominous thriller. However, although the film excels when it sticks to either end of the spectrum, it struggles to combine the two into a unified whole, resulting in a somewhat jarring film.

A Simple Favor centers on the relationship between the two women, who become close after their young sons befriend one another. Only a few months later, however, Emily mysteriously vanishes, leaving behind only a request for Stephanie to look after her son. As Stephanie is drawn further and further into Emily’s life — both through her own search for answers and her growing relationship with Emily’s husband (Henry Golding) — she discovers that her best friend isn’t who she appeared to be and that whatever terrible forces made Emily disappear might be coming after her next.

Much like the rest of the thriller genre, a lot of A Simple Favor’s appeal comes from its complex and surprising plot. There are plenty of plot twists and revelations, all the way through to the film’s final moments, and you’ll never be completely sure of what’s going on. However, none of the film’s surprises ever come completely out of left field. Everything that Stephanie learns is shown to the audience, and it is fairly easy to put everything together once you have all of the information, despite how nebulous it all appears at first. The film also uses flashbacks to reveal what really happened whenever characters are lying, making it much easier to understand their hidden motivations. None of this makes the film’s several aha moments any less impactful, however. 

Unsurprisingly the film’s cast is also excellent, and they all do an amazing job of walking the fine line between “likable” and “potential villain.” Of course the two female leads deserve particular notice for their nuanced portrayals of their respective characters. At first Kendrick might seem like she’s playing to type, but she does an excellent job of switching the girl-next-door persona off whenever the film veers towards a darker place. Likewise, from the second she steps onto the screen, Lively is mysterious and ominous — exactly the kind of person who would lie at the center of such a dark tale. Despite how different they may seem, the disparate personalities work incredibly well with one another, and the film wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without them.

Unfortunately, although the actors manage to make the two extremes work well together, A Simple Favor struggles to combine its horror elements with its comedic ones. To be fair, a lot of the comedy is very amusing, and the darker, more shocking elements are very effective as well. However, the film staggers whenever the two genres overlap. It isn’t dark enough to be scary, but it also isn’t comedic enough to be campy, so it just exists in an uncomfortable neutral zone, and it is difficult to laugh at the jokes when they’re immediately preceded by some fairly grim content.

That being said, there are some moments when the movie figures out how to make its two genres mesh well, and those are some of the best parts of the entire film. The climax involves two characters anxiously discussing at gunpoint whether or not they’re actually friends. At a funeral, someone gossips about how one of the other parents didn’t bring a dessert to the reception. There’s darkness everywhere in Favor’s version of suburbia, and, when the juxtaposition is handled properly, it can be hilarious.

Overall A Simple Favor is definitely an enjoyable and engaging story that has a lot more pros than it does cons. The plot is interesting and always keeps you on your toes; the actors make the characters and their actions feel believable; and the humor is amazing when handled correctly. There are a few missteps, but even a handful of tonal issues can’t keep A Simple Favor from being an incredible rollercoaster of a film. 

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