Is “A Simple Favor” A True Story? The Thriller Feels Like A Mystery Novel

A Simple Favor is a seriously unexpected film for a number of reasons. The Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively-starring thriller is directed by Paul Feig, who previously has only ever helmed comedies like Bridesmaids and Spy.

The film also stars an Asian male love interest, Henry Golding, for its non-Asian female stars, an extreme rarity in a Hollywood film. And while these factors make the film unique and interesting, its still probably the film’s plot that’s most intriguing. But is A Simple Favor a true story, or is it a work of fiction?

The movie’s storyline sounds like a Lifetime movie dialed up to 11. It’s about a mommy blogger (Kendrick) who seeks to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of her mysterious, high-class friend (Lively). It’s filled with drama and unexpected twists, and if it feels like it can’t possibly be true, that’s because it isn’t. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by author Darcey Bell. Released just last year, the book was Bell’s debut novel and it remains her only published work to date. Having her first novel turned into a major motion picture within a year of it being published is quite the achievement, and speaks to how impressive Bell’s story is, but where did she come up with the idea for said story?

It seems as if Bell was largely influenced by other books she had read and enjoyed. In a wide-ranging interview last year with Joye Shepperd of the Washington Independent Review of Books, the author revealed a number of her inspirations. “I’m obsessed with Patricia Highsmith (as you know, she makes some appearances in my novel!), and I learned a lot from reading her work,” Bell told Shepperd. “I think it’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley where she writes, ‘Anticipation was more pleasant… than the experiencing.’ The thrill in anticipation is a big part of writing suspense for me.”

Bell also mentions Edgar Allen Poe as an influence on the character Emily (Lively in the film), stating to Shepperd, “Edgar Allan Poe wrote this story, The Imp of the Perverse, about this imp-demon that stands in for our impulse to do the wrong thing in a situation simply because it is the wrong thing to do. I’ve been haunted/obsessed by this idea (and Edgar Allan Poe in general!) since I read it. Emily was so compelling to me because she learned how to use the pleasure in this impulse to gain power — and look good doing it.”

As for real life inspirations, Bell relied at least somewhat on her job as a preschool teacher to gain some inspiration for her other main character, Stephanie (Kendrick). “As a preschool teacher, I spend a lot of time talking with moms with young children who are often lonely, fiercely protective, and loving parents. To be honest, a lot of the mothers I meet are at least a little like Stephanie,” she told Shepperd.

So although Bell may have drawn bits of inspiration from the works of other authors and from her own life, it appears that A Simple Favor was largely crafted from her imagination — and now she’ll get a chance to see her creation play out on the big screen.

Sly and sweet with an acid finish, “A Simple Favor” is a female-friendship comedy with neo-noir ambitions. Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a widow raising her young son in a chilly Connecticut suburb. From her tidy, bright kitchen festooned with children’s drawings, she regularly hosts a self-produced internet program. Stephanie’s pitching recipes and positivity with a smile, but mostly she’s peddling aspirational motherhood, which, with longer hemlines, might easily veer into “Handmaid’s Tale” territory. She doesn’t have many followers (or much of anyone), but then she’s mostly addressing an audience of one: herself.

Her viewership increases at an impressive, predictable, perhaps meaningful clip soon after she announces on her program that her new friend, Emily (Blake Lively), has gone missing. In gumshoe fashion, Stephanie recounts what happened, how and why, rewinding the story in an extended flashback. She and Emily meet through their sons, who attend the same school where a troika of gargoyles (Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack) mock Stephanie’s anxious parenting. It’s no surprise that she instantly takes to Emily, who emerged Venus-like one rainy day to shine her radiance on Stephanie.

The women cozy up to each other, or anyway Stephanie falls hard. Prodded by their sons, they arrange a children’s play date at Emily’s sleek modernist lair. As fizzy French pop tunes fill the air and a comically outré painting of a naked Emily watches over them, the women laugh and share over drinks. Stephanie is floored by the other woman’s attention and lifestyle. Emily seems to have it all, or at least a glossy magazine-spread version that also includes a sports car, a fancy city job and an alluring husband, Sean (Henry Golding), a professor and writer whose work Stephanie has actually read.

The director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”) has fun setting all this up. Working in fast, bold strokes, he creates a lightly cartoonish but recognizable world of bright surfaces, plastic smiles and gleeful backbiting. Despite her cookies and chirpy persona, Stephanie seems uneasy in her own skin, but she soon finds a new focus (other than her son and herself) when she sees Emily slink out of a Porsche in stilettos and a peekaboo pinstripe suit, hair cascading from beneath a rakish black fedora. Like Fred MacMurray’s weak-kneed patsy in “Double Indemnity,” Emily is thunderstruck by one of those noir blondes who could easily prove fatal.

Everything about Stephanie and Emily — clothing, homes, attitude — underscores the yawning divide between them, which begins inching shut as a friendship forms. In moments, as the Serge Gainsbourg songs play, the temperature teasingly rises, suggesting a closer connection. But then Emily goes missing, and Stephanie and the story turn a sharp corner. The twists and kinks multiply — a shady past surfaces — and the movie seemingly, encouragingly, heads into Gillian Flynn terrain (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”), where the world and women alike are messy, complex and sometimes brutal. Too bad that this promise also proves aspirational. (Jessica Sharzer wrote the script, from the Darcey Bell novel of the same title.)

Mr. Feig handily manages the mood and scene shifts, using regular laughs to brighten the deepening dark. By far his smartest move was to give Ms. Kendrick and Ms. Lively room to create a prickly intimacy for their characters, a bond that’s persuasive enough to push the story through its more forced moments. Even so, despite Mr. Feig and his two well-synchronized stars, “A Simple Favor” starts stalling out as the narrative feints and dodges increase. There are surprises, including a brief turn from Jean Smart. For the most part, though, the drawn-out payoff doesn’t deliver on the story’s setup or its characters’ juicy potential.

It would be nice to see Mr. Feig reunite with Ms. Lively and Ms. Kendrick, who pump oxygen into their caricatures. As the adult Mean Girl that everyone falls for at some point, Ms. Lively looks and plays her flashy part convincingly, deploying small seductive smiles that can quickly morph into soul-destroying sneers. She’s good, but the movie belongs to Ms. Kendrick, who takes Stephanie, an Instagram cliché, and turns her into a multitude of women — the sweet smother-mother, the sighingly lonely widow, the wipe-your-feet-on-me doormat — who never think they’re good enough, but who of course are exactly right.

Director Paul Feig
Writer Jessica Sharzer
Stars Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Ian Ho
Rating R
Running Time1h 57m
Genres Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

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