Not a Normal Person Like You and Me

On A Simple Favor and its Players

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR | Lionsgate
Lionsgate

By almost no metric should A Simple Favor work. There are, arguably, times that it wildly does not—I won’t argue that, but someone might. On paper, there’s one wild swing after another; the plot hangs together based sheerly on the juicy propulsiveness of the mystery at its heart. But in practice, it’s a much different beast. 

Like any thriller, the satisfaction rate of A Simple Favor tips depending on how much you are so into its thing that you choose to wonder what it might do next, as opposed to trying to outstep it. The costuming is flashy and audacious; sometimes it feels like it might be out of step by design and sometimes it just feels bold. The plot winds around a series of hairpin turns that feel, at best, as foolhardy as they are necessary to propel the story careening towards the next turn. 

But enough about why someone might say it doesn’t work—again, there are no such people writing to you. I am here to tell you a few reasons why A Simple Favor excels. And, like so many great soaps, a lot of these are a perfect circle in the venn-diagram of why someone might dislike it: The costumes are flashy and audacious, feeling bold and out of step by design; the plot winds around a series of hairpin turns that feel like those curves in Mario Kart where you hit the drift just right and come out with a boost. There’s no better way to put it—this movie fucks, and its beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

Perhaps A Simple Favor works so well because it’s perfectly cast—or rather, its cast is perfectly suited for their roles. In true Paul Feig/Allison Jones style, the metatextual read of every single casting choice works in favor of every single character. Each actor brings just enough baggage that we’re able to project our own feelings onto them and appreciate how they’re being used in a way that both complements and bucks against their type. We should be so lucky to have Linda Cardellini pop up in every movie, take a swig straight from the bottle, and defend her knife art. Who better than Jean Smart to imbue a brief role with a touch of matronly concern filtered through the fog of a scowl? 

But let’s talk about the core four, the power players: the cop, the femme fatales, and the sweet literary goon who ping pongs between them all. Without them—well, it just wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Anna Kendrick as Stephanie in A Simple Favor (2018)

Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers

There’s no better personification of the stretch of A Simple Favor than Anna Kendrick. Her appeal depends heavily on just how much you’re into what she’s peddling. Of course, it also depends on which side of her you like best.

Kendrick has bucked convention through the years, publicly professing to not “really [having] a career strategy.” You could call her a “Cool Girl,” but she’s played so many truly down-to-Earth sweetheart roles at this point1that she’s clearly a bit more wholesome than Amy Dunne’s don’t-give-a-fuck archetype would allow for. Perhaps real-life friend Aubrey Plaza put it best when she called Kendrick “the weirdest combo of impulsive tequila-drinking party girl and 80-year-old senator’s wife from Vermont.” That would at least skirt a little closer to how Kendrick’s Stephanie can be one of the weirdest parts of a decidedly weird movie.

It’s hard to say Anna Kendrick is doing her best here, when years into her career this seems exactly like what she’s able to offer as an actress: earnestness with a bit of a kick, a sort of sardonic every woman who flits very quickly between determined and clumsy, composed and wacky. But she is certainly doing the best she can with a role like Stephanie—making her encompass whatever mode the movie is working in seamlessly.

With Stephanie, Kendrick has to work against both the cozy bright craftsman that is Stephanie’s house, and the sleek, stark modernism of Henry and Emily’s. Her character has to make both places feel like home, feel lived in in a way that you just can’t imagine Emily doing. Whereas Blake Lively has to exude a certain unknowable sexiness, Anna has to sublimate things differently—through food, and a quick flurry of movement anytime she oversteps. So it’s useful to have someone like Kendrick, with such killer off-kilter line readings in her arsenal. She’s flusteredly murmuring appreciation for knife paintings, or drunkenly wondering who said something about her, or calling out the Diabolique connection of the movie. In all these moments you certainly read her as a sincere Mommy Blogger, but you also see her as a layered woman compartmentalizing a lot.

Is the entire backstory with her brother—and the disputed, not-quite-confirmed paternity of her son—relevant to the overall plot? In another thriller, it’s the sort of tidbit that might ultimately feel like a secret so shameful that Kendrick has to kowtow to some villain’s demands to keep it out of the public eye. Even in A Simple Favor, it never really rises to a level of juicy distraction. But Kendrick is the one who manages to braid it into the plot, to bring some genuine pathos to lines like, “I think loneliness kills more people than cancer.” 

With the timeline in A Simple Favor relatively opaque and screwy,2 Kendrick’s performance here helps anchor our understanding of their friendship between plot points. She at one point felt close (and drunk) enough with Emily to confess her darkest secret, to hint at the real shadows in her otherwise bright life. In these brief scenes, you can feel Kendrick reaching out for a friend and finding a sort of opposites-attract love. Yes, it’s packed in with some salacious red herrings—like, OK, they make out—but for the rest of the movie to make sense we have to trust that these two felt some sort of connection.

Kendrick perfects an odd-ball persona that makes you believe there’s some contrasting quality that makes both these women feel seen. Her career exists at the intersection of these far-flung personas merging into one. She seems to be effortlessly charming, a nice girl with a mouth like a sailor and a down-to-earth attitude, winning no matter who she is—a chatty small-town teenager who’s vampire adjacent; edgy and spelling her name with one C, and forced to join an acapella group because she knows David Guetta. 

Stephanie is not “cool” in the colloquial sense of the word, but she would be cool to know. The thing about Stephanie is we all know a Stephanie but no one actually knows a Stephanie; her character fits into the type, but for her to be a main character she has to appeal to all of us (which real-life Stephanies do not, most of the time). She has to seem like a butterfly waiting to come out of some highly DIY-ed cocoon—and someone like Kendrick, who largely eschews any sort of Hollywood type beyond “sweetly sardonic,” is the person to get her there. 

In an older thriller, or even a lesser thriller, the hair color differences would speak for themselves, with Lively as the icy, beautiful blonde, and Kendrick as the homey brunette. But A Simple Favor plays on what we know about Anna Kendrick as a star, not denying her sexuality when instead she can be what the movie requires her to be: An overeager, tight-laced mom; a lonely, middle-aged woman; a horndog; an ace detective rapping in her SUV as she celebrates a victory. 

Henry Golding in A Simple Favor (2018) | Lionsgate

Henry Golding as Sean

Oh Sean. Sweet, summer child Sean. If Stephanie has to be able to maneuver through any obstacle, then Sean is tasked with being plausibly anything. 

Depending on who you’re watching, who’s describing him, who’s telling stories he’s in, you may have a completely different interpretation of who he is. Our perspective is often informed by Stephanie, who is, at first, enthralled just to be talking to him—he’s a favorite author of hers, the gorgeous husband to her impetuous best friend, who he banters with while swathed in the same elegant lifestyle. 

Once Stephanie starts spending more time with Emily, we get a bleaker picture of him and their marriage: She talks constantly of him as a failure, living off the fame and glory that his promising debut novel brought him. Their tension is lusty and antagonistic. These are two people who you want to believe have some love beneath the bits of toxicity they perform in front of visitors, even as they actively seem to tell you there’s nothing but their kid. If you believe Emily’s picture of Sean, he is at best a pathetically horny pushover, and at worst actively corrupted. 

So once Emily is gone we’re left with an unclear picture of Sean—he seems brought to heel and venom by his wife, and yet in front of us is a considerate father, fed up with his wife’s flamboyant antics. When Sean finds out his wife is missing—well, once he believes his wife is missing—he seems almost cautious in his decision to actually seek her out. “Well let’s do it—not the tea. [Calling] the police,” he says when he’s finally resolved that this could be the big one. We get a sense that this just might be the truest part of Sean, someone who selectively grabs life by the horns after he feels he has no other choice. He’ll later say as much when he describes being wooed by Emily. His description of their love story is the stuff of resignation, a cross he has no choice but to bear. 

So, unsurprisingly, he is largely relegated to the backburner as a character. Sean is emblematic of the life that Emily and Stephanie are both chasing for different reasons. And he exists in the background enough that it’s hard to make sense of whether he’s telling the truth, or if Emily is. Henry Golding’s performance has to allow room for him to feasibly be whatever the story requires of Sean at the moment: fawning husband who matches acerbic wit; concerned father; love interest; potential killer. 

Golding’s limited public profile actually informs this role fairly well. Relatively new to the profession, he has a freshness in an earnest sort of way—or at least in a way that makes you want to believe him. A Simple Favor was dropped almost exactly a month after Golding broke through with Crazy Rich Asians, a role that required him to be, as Vulture put it, “a hunk of blinding charisma with man-of-the-people humility who men want to be and women want to be with.” That sort of one-two punch in his acting resume inspired a sense of hopeless romanticism projected onto Sean. You wanted to believe that he was the gonzo romantic who would ask his dead wife’s best friend to move in with him days to weeks after her funeral. We’re always eager for a reason to trust him, even as his role in all this seems increasingly murky. 

He admits that his wife was a pathological liar and a thief, and yet…they’re still married. “I was spellbound; she was the only woman I could never figure out fully,” Sean recollects of when Emily stole his mother’s prized ring, confessed, and then had sex with him in the airplane bathroom. He chalks it up to being “a young, arrogant writer,” but it seems more insidious than that. Though he may dispute Emily’s recollection of things—the life insurance, the threesomes, how she ot the ring, the friendship bracelet Stephanie gave her—his role in all of it seems to be an alarming waltz of active and passive, one that certainly wouldn’t inspire confidence in a new partner. 

What A Simple Favor is ultimately smart enough to know is that, despite all Sean’s shortcomings and flip-floppings and complete surrender to his amorous side, he doesn’t deserve to be framed for Emily and Stephanie’s machinations3. But it’s still up to Golding to thread the needle between disbelieving, malevolent, and handsome. The drive of the film’s final act is how these disparate threads will be woven together now that we know all the moving parts. As the two women conspire at Emily’s gravesite, insinuating that neither of them sees Sean as a boon anymore, it seems easy to believe they could set him up to take the fall. That doesn’t feel fair, but only because Golding has planted so many disparate seeds of doubt. He gets pushed to the background enough that it’s hard to know whether he is telling the truth, or Emily is, or some combination of the two. Even when he frankly says that he wants to be the man he is with Stephanie, he has to inspire an inkling of doubt equaled only by our inclination to believe him. Henry Golding had to take his persona of being the pinnacle of manhood and curdle it into disappointment.

Bashir Salahuddin as Detective Summerville in A SIMPLE FAVOR | Lionsgate

Bashir Salahuddin as Detective Summerville

The man who has to counteract all the goodwill Golding builds up is Bashir Salahuddin. Let me start this section by stating a simple truth: Show me someone who doesn’t love Bashir Salahuddin on-screen, and I’ll show you a liar. The man is infectious, palpably shifting the mood of any room his characters walk into. Detective Summerville, cop though he may be, is no exception. 

Usually cops in noir thrillers—detectives especially—are harder than Summerville. Their world is all rough angles. They’re world weary, determined to abide by the letter of the law, and that lawful goodness is the engine for us to cruise through the moral gray areas of the thriller. Even if justice isn’t done, they can come out feeling they’ve done good.

Compared to the other three characters, Summerville is more here to prop up the plot, and to inform Stephanie’s doubt and mystery chasing. But in a world without Salahuddin, that’s all he is. When detectives aren’t bringing the full weight of the Lawful Good alignment to a narrative, they trend towards ineffectual, doggedly one step behind where the protagonist needs them to be, sometimes bamboozled by the conspiracy at hand. Ultimately, Salahuddin’s sly charm makes Summerville never seem out of step with the rest of the movie. Summerville isn’t inept, even when he’s not on the right trail; he is perceptive and quick, pouncing on any hole or confusion with a lighthearted zeal. 

It’s in the performance that he really comes to life, jumping from cog in the machine to instigator with a hearty laugh. His overall position in the narrative is to be a fly in the ointment of the various machinations: he plants doubt to suss out conspirators, chases down logical but wrong clues, closes the case after they discover a body. We aren’t meant to think that Detective Summerville would pull at the threads of Emily’s life like Stephanie does, or at least, that he’d be given a chance to. But you get the sense that if he were given an opportunity, he would. He’s crafty, even if he isn’t projecting the same air of calculated design that some of the ladies do. 

Summerville seems as smart as he is dexterous, able to change up an interrogation on a dime. After needling Stephanie to the point where she balks that Sean had Emily “rubbed out? He just hired a hit man?” Salahuddin emits a boisterous laugh: “I didn’t say anything about hiring a hitman. You just did.” 

This moment displays a similar versatility that Kendrick brings—perhaps what makes them so fun to bounce off each other. He’s game to tango, and though he might not seem it, he’s always the one in the lead. His act is transparently buddy-buddy, but he owns every single second of it. In Salahuddin’s hands, Summerville has a deviousness laced with a puckish charm—even his most casual interrogation clearly belies a strong sense of who each of these players are. 

Which is crucial for A Simple Favor: The actual perpetrators of the plot (plus Sean) are far too insular and conniving to self-police in any meaningful way. Left to their own devices, Stephanie and Emily would concoct increasingly elaborate reveals straight from the tutelage of Professor Professorson to flip the tables on each other. With Summerville, there is a sense of order to the whole proceeding, an exit ramp off the highway of mind games the two women play with each other. And thanks to Salahuddin, he can give as good as he gets. 

Blake Lively as Emily in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) | Lionsgate

Blake Lively as Emily

We have, finally, come to the part of the essay, where we talk about the real bedrock of this film: Blake Lively and her costumes.4

Listen, I was just as surprised as anyone. Lively is one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever seen in my life, but in my experience she has never been that great of an actor. You can watch her performances and it’s almost like looking at 30 Rock’s Bubble in action: it’s not that she’s bad, so much as there’s a disconnect, like she’s never really been pushed to be much more than beautiful. Looking at her acting resume, every role (rightfully) seems to trade on how stunning she is as a person. 

In A Simple Favor, these are exactly her strengths for the role of Emily. Emily’s thing isn’t like anyone else, so she doesn’t look like it either—how could she? She’s played by Blake Lively, who has in the past played characters compared to Greek goddesses and lived up to the task. Emily’s differences are only more apparent in how she is set apart from both the other moms and her husband: she rocks suits, transforming bespoke business looks into glam. She is a beautiful cypher, always holding something back, almost wooden but more in the way that makes you feel as if you’re the one missing something. 

That’s why the playdate scenes are so much fun: When Emily is around Stephanie, her style is almost always combative, trying to size up and cut down Stephanie’s defenses. It is incredibly effective. Almost any discrepancies in Emily’s character or story can be chalked up to the distance between us and Blake Lively as a human. Did Emily have her plan in place when she started befriending Stephanie? Ours is not to question the will of the gods. Does perfect, polished Emily really think that a perfect martini is just straight gin in a frozen glass with a spritz? Possibly; maybe it’s just another way that she’s playacting at having taste. Maybe she’s trying to get Stephanie drunk faster. As far as celebrities go, Lively seems like as nice as a person who regularly thinks about the “allure of the antebellum” can be, building her public persona as one of warm wit and gleaming smiles with husband Ryan Reynolds. Emily isn’t a polar opposite—they both love a zinger—but she’s far colder and aloof, operating on the rules of a game that no one else is. 

The beauty of the costume design in A Simple Favor is that though both women have loud styles that project a certain amount of confidence, both are being used to mask twisty secrets and clothing-as-denial of their fears. Both women fear that their past will come to light, and both work to mask that as much as they can with a sartorial uniform, no less protective than actual armor. 

Stephanie wants to divorce herself from a mess of trauma, guilt, and incest, and so her “Super Mom” armor is all bright colors, prim collars, pom-poms, and daisies. But Emily—well, Emily is the monarch butterfly, using flashiness to hide in plain sight and belie the poisonous creature underneath. The only time you’ll see her in a dress is when she’s playacting a housewife.

Her suits (inspired by the real-life wardrobe of Paul Feig) speak to her “fuck them in the face” philosophy, establishing her as both the exception to those around her and the Alpha of her own relationship, the breadwinner in both bank balance and look. 

It’s fair to say that Lively is having more fun than Kendrick. While A Simple Favor feels like an extension of what Kendrick does with any role, it’s a true unfurling of Lively’s power in a role that demands it. She proves herself just as adept at suave camp as she does at pulling her Dickey collar off after a long day.5

Like Golding, Lively has to make her character seem capable—capable of heroin, murder, the “impulsive, crazy things” that Sean ascribes to her (although we see her do little aside from push the bounds of decent interactions, drink fancy martinis, and murder her sister to cover her tracks). It’s Lively’s poker face—and, frankly, hotness—that makes it seem a helluva lot more believable that she came from a wild and reckless past. 

By the time we come into the final act of the film, A Simple Favor is throttling ahead at full speed. That momentum is incredibly hard to pay off, and the film dabbles in a series of double-crosses and triple-crosses, fake and real gunplay, and more sartorial superpower. It’s a lot—maybe too much—but as helmed by Emily it’s delightful. Her chaotic self-interest is the only thing that can really save the movie in the end. She is the sort of person who issues her rebuttals as an adversarial challenge—“Did I say it was a him?”—and wears a mini skirt on a transatlantic flight! There is no world in which she would “confess to protect that fuckin’ yeast infection [Sean].” And honestly, we’re better for it. 

When we leave our players, Emily has been robbed of all her fineries, machinations, and defenses. She now just plays basketball in prison and is apparently good at it (sure). But Blake Lively found a potency that deserves to be contended with. In a cast of people proving their mettle, Lively stood tall and did us the simple favor of completely delivering on a mysterious enigma. If a story is really only as good as its villain, then Lively has given us one for the ages, with a mind just as sharp as her outfits. With her at the helm, it doesn’t matter if Feig meant for the movie to be more a suburban satire, or a noir thriller, or a black comedy. She embodies all of it, refracting it as she sees fit. Without Lively, Emily just wouldn’t be as much of a pure pleasure. And neither would A Simple Favor.

  1. What’s good, HBO Max’s Love Life?
  2. It’s not exactly clear how long Emily and Stephanie are “friends”—when Emily disappears we’ve only seen one or two playdates, and in her opening vlog Stephanie says they met “a few weeks ago.” But flashbacks and the weight of their friendship (even allowing for the idea that neither had a friend to compare it to, really) seem to indicate that it could’ve been a few months or a fortnight. That accordion nature stretches throughout A Simple Favor, where as far as the audience is concerned Stephanie moved in with her dead best friend’s husband maybe a week after the funeral?
  3. To give you some metric of how smart the film is: It knows that two white women probably should not set their Asian love interest up for crimes he decidedly was too unaware of to commit. It is also keen enough to not have him end up with either of them, even if it’s not so astute that they did film an ending where he ends up with Stephanie….by proposing through flash mob. Truly I am sorry to share this link with you, but it’s important you understand why the ending feels a bit clipped.
  4. How can you not, with a film that can be summoned simply by googling “Blake Lively suit movie,” and is worth every promise of that sentence?
  5. Which, it cannot be stressed enough: Oh my god???