A Simple Favor is the newest movie from comedy director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat), and is the director’s first foray into the realm of psychological thrillers. It follows Stephanie (played by Anna Kendrick), a lonely, awkward mommy blogger as she befriends and falls for Blake Lively’s Emily, the chic, absentee mother of her son’s friend. When Emily disappears, Stephanie investigates, and finds out that her best friend and lover is a master manipulator with a troubled and criminal past.
A Simple Favor is a lot of fun, and I have to give it props for being completely and meaningfully female-driven — if Emily and Stephanie were men, or even if they weren’t both moms, the story wouldn’t work as well. Among so many “girl power” reboots of male-centric stories, that’s really refreshing. There’s a comedic twist throughout which worked surprisingly well, and the chemistry between the principle actors is impressive; Kendrick’s comedic chops keep Stephanie on the funny side of cringey, and Lively’s Emily is harsh, selfish, and untouchable, but endlessly captivating. She dominates every scene, filling out her provocative high-fashion suits with addicting charm. However, Feig loses track of the film’s tone and whom his protagonist is, relying on homophobic tropes to manufacture intrigue and raise the stakes — Emily’s not just being manipulated by her friend or love interest, she’s being manipulated by a woman in a suit who wants to sleep with her: quelle horreur! All of this results in a disappointing ending.
Stephanie and Emily both have tragic backstories, but Stephanie’s isn’t directly tied to the story; it accounts for her bad decisions which drive conflict, but no one is forcing her to make them. In contrast, Emily’s mistakes are brought back to haunt her by someone else. Emily is manipulative, unreliable, hard-drinking, and selfish, but although we share Stephanie’s perspective, Emily becomes the most sympathetic and likeable character, especially since she’s largely motivated by fear of losing her son. A Simple Favour is no Psycho, but Emily is something of a Norman Bates — ostensibly, she’s our antagonist, but Stephanie doesn’t make a compelling hero. Which is why it’s so gut-wrenching when Emily loses. Unlike Norman, we’re not supposed to feel bad for her. Instead, we’re asked to laugh at her when, as the police are coming to arrest her, she gets hit by a car, allowing Stephanie to mock her viciously as she crawls across the asphalt like half-dead roadkill. The rest of the movie strikes an artful balance between seriousness and cracking jokes, but here, each one-liner feels biting, not witty. It’s not just tonally dissonant, it’s also all too familiar in stories about queer women.
A Simple Favour smacks heavily of Hays Code tropes about lesbians, especially seductive butch women like Emily. In movies produced under the Hays Code (a set of “moral guidelines” that informed filmmaking in Hollywood from the 1930s to the mid-60s), lesbians and gay men weren’t uncommon characters, but they either had to die or become straight at the end of the movie. The moral failure associated with their sexuality was usually extrapolated into the rest of their character, making them volatile, antisocial, and abusive in many cases. At first, I was willing to forgive Feig for walking shoulder to shoulder with this canon because the movie was otherwise so much fun, and I don’t think every queer character needs to be an angel, but then the ending happened. Right before the climax I described, Feig includes the song “Laisser tomber les filles,” an English cover of which is used prominently in Jamie Babbit’s groundbreaking 1999 lesbian comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader. Initially, I was thrilled at the allusion. Naively, I expected it to foreshadow Stephanie and Emily reconciling and ending up together as a lesbian power couple. I know, I’m an idiot.
Literally translated, the title of the song means “leave the girls alone.” In But I’m a Cheerleader, which is about a teenage lesbian being sent to and escaping from conversion camp, the song is cheeky and ironic. Using it in A Simple Favor makes it clear that Feig wanted to appeal to queer women in the audience, that he was attempting to contribute to queer-inclusive cinema. However, these are some of the song’s final lyrics: “Hang up the chick habit / Hang it up, daddy, / Or you’ll be alone in a quick / You’re gonna see the reason why / When they’re spitting in your eye / They’ll be spitting in your eye.”
And while I was being asked to laugh at Emily, they didn’t quite ring hollow enough.