‘A Simple Favor’ is a feminine twist on the fugitive movie trope

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively’s new thriller strikes the perfect balance between motherhood and murder

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“A Simple Favor” follows Stephanie Smothers, played by Anna Kendrick, when her best friend Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively, goes missing. 

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Let’s face it — there’s no shortage of thriller movies on the market, and as long as people keep deciding to see Liam Neeson’s daughter get kidnapped not once, not twice, but three times in the “Taken” franchise, there’s never going to be. Thriller movies all tend to follow the same basic formula — a young woman goes missing, the man in her life goes to the violent ends of the earth to find her until the damsel is saved, the villain ends up dead and somehow, the hero manages to escape mostly unscathed with a clean criminal record, despite his questionable activities throughout the mission. In Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor,” a young woman does indeed go missing — but the stereotyped similarities end there.

Based on Darcey Bell’s novel of the same name, “A Simple Favor” follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a small town single mom and online blogger turned detective when her best friend Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) goes missing. Kendrick and Lively’s characters make for an unlikely pair. Stephanie is a helicopter parent, a chronic PTA mom and wears pom-pom sweaters straight from the pages of the Talbots Kids magazine. Meanwhile, Emily wears designer pantsuits, works in the elusive “city” as a public relations agent and has a penchant for day drinking.

Stephanie and Emily meet after International Day at their sons’ school. When the two boys demand a playdate, Emily — clad in red-bottomed Louboutins — invites a flustered Stephanie to her house for drinks while the boys play. Their friendship blossoms alongside that of their sons and for a while, everything seems normal. Then, one day, Emily calls Stephanie and asks for “a simple favor,” asking if she can pick up her son from school. There’s a crisis at work, her husband is out of the country caring for his ailing mother and she just can’t get away. Stephanie is more than willing to help out — that is, until Emily never arrives to collect her son. 

The police are called, the FBI get involved and eventually, Stephanie dedicates her online video blog — originally devoted to parenting advice and DIY crafts — to the case. In doing so, Stephanie effectively falls head over heels into the dark world Emily had been hiding from, a world of murder, incest, sex and mystery that puts into question everything Stephanie thought she knew about her safe suburban community.

“A Simple Favor” works well for several reasons, the first and foremost being the stellar performances of Kendrick and Lively. They play off each other masterfully, making this film like a gripping cat and mouse game, except that both women are the antagonizing and powerful cats toying with each other. Kendrick shows a new side to her acting ability in this role, putting aside the goofy college student persona she adopted in the “Pitch Perfect” franchise that launched her career. Lively too let some of her innocence slide, with this deliciously twisted cutthroat girl boss posing as a stark contrast to the sweet, flawless women Lively portrayed in “The Age of Adaline” and “The Shallows,” some of her more recent films. With this role as Emily, Lively seems to have finally hit her stride in the film industry, giving arguably her best film performance to date. 

Alongside the acting, the humor in this movie sets it apart from Hollywood’s other stereotypical thriller exploits. The film features an almost Shakespeare-esque chorus that follows the main characters and plot around, providing commentary. Yet, instead of being led by townspeople of the marketplace, this chorus comprises of Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla and — perhaps funniest of all — Broadway’s Andrew Rannells, as parents judging Emily for her absence and Stephanie for her overbearing nature. They serve a critical role as comic relief in a darkly convoluted plot, and seeing Rannells — who self-identifies as “one of the moms” in the film — interacting with a misbehaving toddler is too funny to miss. 

“A Simple Favor” takes the male-dominated thriller genre and reimagines it in an undoubtedly feminine and mothering way without losing any of the suspense that the genre is known and loved for. Lively and Kendrick are two mothers who peel away the stereotype of the Stepford wife away bit by bit throughout the movie’s two hour run time, and what’s left is a raw representation of motherhood, secrecy and persona that is equal parts entertaining and groundbreaking. So a message to Hollywood: stop making “Taken” movies and make more thrillers like this one. 

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