Until a couple of weeks ago, I was convinced that A Simple Favor was a hoax. “This can’t possibly be a real movie,” I told anyone who would listen (no one), after watching the initial trailer. The Paul Feig-directed thriller appeared too absurdly stylized, too sinfully delicious, to be taken at face value. It must be a joke. Ironically enough, that same flawed reasoning applies to its star, Blake Lively, whose performance in the film is being hailed as a defining moment in her career.
Like many beautiful women in Hollywood, Lively is the girl we all love to hate, and hate that we love. We cackled with glee at the demise of Preserve, her lifestyle website that peddled $4 bajillion custom leather diaper bags. We watched incredulously as she chose to wed Ryan Reynolds on a Southern plantation, and then ran a tone deaf spread called “Allure of The Antebellum,” which failed to address aspects of that bygone era like, oh you know, slavery. We rolled our eyes when she said that Woody Allen is “empowering to women,” after starring in Cafe Society. But we also love to celebrate her wit as she heckles Reynolds on Twitter, and sigh with pleasure when they’re spotted on a date. We ooh and ah at their children, and then sit down to binge Gossip Girl for the 26th time. News of any kind of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants cast reunion, be it for coffee or a selfie, is immediately shared and commented on by nostalgic fans.
Lively is an enigma, and as A Simple Favor’s Emily Nelson, a high-powered fashion publicist with a penchant for sharp suits worn without shirts, she’s playing the most extreme version of her public persona. She’s the ultimate cool girl, the kind of woman who plays French music in her tastefully decorated house that she shares with her hot novelist husband (Henry Golding). She owns a nude painting of herself that she posed for during her bohemian phase. She uses only chilled glasses for martinis, because the other stuff is shit. When she befriends mommy-vlogger Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), the contrast is evident. Stephanie is relatable (although, to Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer’s credit, she isn’t as one-dimensional as one might presume) — she buys socks at Target, wears practical outerwear like rain boots, and makes Swedish meatballs for her son’s foods of the world day in school. Emily is aspirational, the woman we all try to emulate, only to be reminded that it all comes so effortlessly to her. She is, in other words, what we believe Blake Lively to be.
But what makes Lively’s performance so striking is that she’s not content with gliding by on her looks, or It Girl factor. Her line delivery is multi-layered, seductive, and dangerous, slapstick as well as femme fatale. She purrs out her threats as she sips her drinks, and laughs throatily when she finds something funny. It’s a role that looks easy, but demands a talented actress. Do too much and the whole thing veers into parody. Do too little, and it will all fall flat.
So, it really shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the initial buzz fluttering around the film have even given way to calls for a potential Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for the former Gossip Girl actress. And despite there being precedent (fellow blonde femme fatale Kim Basinger won the award for a noir thriller, L.A. Confidential, in 1997), it does surprise us.
We don’t take Lively seriously as an actress, not because she’s consistently proven that she’s a bad one, but rather because we just don’t give her that kind of consideration. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Until A Simple Favor, I hadn’t really given her career a second thought. She was a celebrity with great hair who made headlines, and who sometimes starred in things that I forgot about the second she was done doing press for them. As the face of L'Oréal, she was a constant fixture at fashion shows and shampoo ads. I didn’t actively dislike her, but I overlooked her. And that was my mistake.
To be fair, she’s made some poor choices, and starred in some duds, namely Green Lantern, a film that stubbornly refuses to fade into obscurity because it’s the one that gave us the Lively/Reynolds romance. And then there’s that time she opted to attempt a Boston accent alongside Ben Affleck in The Town. She’s played various flat versions of her cool girl self, as in The Age of Adaline, about a perfect blonde woman who never ages.
But to her credit, Lively has never been afraid to try new genres. As with A Simple Favor, she could have coasted on her Gossip Girl reputation, playing a Serena van der Woodsen type for the rest of her career. She didn’t. Whatever you think of The Shallows, it was clearly an attempt by a actress who has nearly always been put in situations that highlight her beauty to carve out a new space for herself. The film itself is...fine. Either you love watching fake shark terrorize humans in the ocean or you don’t. But Lively, who is on screen the entire time, and alone for most of it, certainly carries the movie. Her next performance, All I See Is You, about a blind woman’s fraught relationship with her husband after she regains her sight, was a dismal box-office failure (it grossed $217,644 domestically, which barely made a dent in the $30 million budget), but Lively was praised by the few who did see it. (David Ehlich at Indiewire called it “her finest performance” after A Simple Favor, and “the best indication that she possesses enough subtlety and self-awareness required to remain a star long after Gossip Girl is a distant memory.”)
So, what’s next? In 2019, she’ll be starring in revenge thriller The Rhythm Section, helmed by Reed Morano (best-known for directing The Handmaid’s Tale) alongside Sterling K. Brown and Jude Law. She’s also attached to a movie adaptation of The Husband’s Secret, based on a novel by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty.
Personally, I think Lively’s best work is still ahead. We haven’t even seen the role that will be her big Oscar Moment. But who knows, maybe come February, we’ll see her walking the red carpet on her way to scoop up that gold statue. And if you still think that’s crazy, let me be the first to remind you that Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing an Australian playing a Black man in Tropic Thunder, just 10 short years ago.