Opening with the bouncy ’60s French pop song “Ca S’est Arrangé” laid over a Saul Bass-inspired titles sequence, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor announces its intention to be guided by spryness above all else. The film exhibits a lightness of touch early on, as tightly wound but ever-cheerful single mother and cooking vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is thrust into the exclusive social orbit of the sophisticated Emily (Blake Lively) after their kids meet for a playdate. And as the lonely, widowed Stephanie—euphoric simply at the opportunity to befriend the town’s coolest, most urbane mom—gleefully spills her deepest, darkest secrets over a series of martini-soaked hangout sessions, Feig cannily allows us to luxuriate in the tensions that arise between the two women, all while their true intentions lurk beneath a haze of booze.
Both Stephanie’s intense—and potentially sexual—feelings for Emily, which Kendrick conveys through her typical turned-up-to-11 neurotic restlessness, and Emily’s coy nefariousness, masked by Lively’s enigmatic gaze, allow for a number of provocative, mysterious, and amusing tête-à-têtes between the two women. But once Emily disappears without warning after leaving her son, Nicky (Ian Ho), with Stephanie, A Simple Favor suddenly shifts into Nancy Drew mystery mode, struggling to balance its initial playfulness with a desire to veer into noir terrain. The moment Stephanie is revealed to be more puckish than her soccer-mom exterior would have you believe, the film becomes a trite and increasingly inane story about the dark underbelly of suburbia.
Feig’s dive into the nastier side of his characters is laced with references to classic film noirs: a late-in-the-game insurance scam a la Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity; a painting of Emily’s mom (Jean Smart) that recalls Otto Preminger’s Laura; and a shamelessly awkward name drop when Stephanie asks Emily’s husband, Sam (Henry Golding), if he’s “diabolique-ing” her. But these call-outs are hollow at best, seeming to exist only for their own sake.
As Stephanie tracks down the elusive Emily, all while growing dangerously closer to Sean, the narrative becomes unwieldy. Feig’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach allows for the introduction of plot points involving, among other things: incest, patricide, Christian summer camp, a failed literary career, and a psychotic artist who only paints knives. In doing so, A Simple Favor haphazardly vacillates between suburban satire, goofy comedy, and dark, twisted psychological thriller. Which is to say that the film doesn’t evince the seamlessness of presentation of its clearest antecedent: David Fincher’s Gone Girl. In one of the film’s first lines, Stephanie says, “Secrets are like margarine: easy to spread, bad for the heart.” And ultimately, it’s hard not see Feig’s film as the margarine of modern noir: full of far too many unnecessary ingredients and constantly reminding us of similar but superior products.