The type of contemporary movie that gets called “noir” nowadays doesn’t bear much resemblance to the films of the genre’s golden era. For one thing, they tend to be a lot less funny. Classics like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity are shadowy and sordid, but they never brood — the characters that inhabit them talk and crack wise till the sun comes up (if it ever does). This occurred to me while watching A Simple Favor, Paul Feig’s salty, soapy little whodunit, and while trying to decide what qualifier to attach to the noir categorization — mommy noir, pastel noir — I realized I had it all wrong. Despite its sunny Connecticut suburb setting, it’s a straight-ahead noir, in its chatty, perverse, popcorn-y original recipe.
It was easy to not know what to expect of A Simple Favor going in, which had one of the more inscrutable marketing campaigns of any film in recent years. (“From the darker side of Paul Feig …”) But in many ways, the film, adapted from a novel by Darcey Bell, seems like the movie he has perhaps always had in his back pocket, waiting for its moment amid the franchises and Ferdinands. With a script by L Word alum Jessica Sharzer, the story is a classic femme fatale story, with a lesser fatale femme filling in as the infatuated gumshoe.
The story begins with the unlikely friendship between Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and Emily (Blake Lively), the former a busybody mommy blogger, the latter a glamorous publicist with a fancy city office and a hot novelist husband (Henry Golding). Fellow parents at the school their sons attend suspect that Emily is just using Stephanie as a free, convenient after-school nanny, but the two also bond quickly, with the help of more than a few gin martinis (straight up with a twist, obviously). The seductively confident Emily reveals her and her husband Sean’s money troubles, Stephanie tells Emily about the death of Stephanie’s late husband, as well a particularly taboo secret from her adolescence. Then one day, Emily calls Stephanie to ask her to pick up her son from school, and then disappears without a trace.
The truth about Emily and her disappearance, as Stephanie makes it her business to find out, is a convoluted spiderweb of dark pasts, secret identities, and a dash of arson that would feel a little hoary if it wasn’t executed with such a dedicated sense of humor. (The film nears the two-hour mark, and certainly feels longer.) Kendrick is all hand-wringing and nervous giggles, not much we haven’t seen from her before, but a reliable engine to make this thing zoom along through every hairpin turn. But Lively (who is hitting some kind of brilliant stride between this and last year’s underappreciated All I See Is You) is a caustic and magnetic revelation; Feig has found a way to truly weaponize the breezily enviable charm that has been a check that Lively hasn’t always been able to cash. With her foul mouth and dapper-butch array of suits, she seems to be channeling the kind of huckster pickup artist every woman must learn to avoid at some point, but in a softer, more elegant (and probably more dangerous) guise. Golding, as in last month’s Crazy Rich Asians, is an immensely watchable, inoffensive hunk.
Those guessing that some kind of Ripley-esque action is on the horizon after Emily’s disappearance aren’t far off the mark, though the intersection of the two women’s lives is less Persona swap and more Rebecca. With its martini-swilling leads and swingy French pop soundtrack, A Simple Favor seems to yearn for a bygone era of nail-biter, but rather than wallow in pastiche, it comes up with something truly contemporary feeling. It’s a thriller in which two women are the centrifugal force of the intrigue, and unlike their pensive noir contemporaries, the sum total of all human nature doesn’t hang in the balance — just one woman’s mommy vlog.