With a jangle of French pop, Paul Feig’s suburban noir “A Simple Favor” begins. The detective is mommy blogger Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick). The case, as she tells her few thousand viewers, is her missing best friend Emily (Blake Lively), who vanished after asking Stephanie to watch her son (Ian Ho). The flashback tells the truth: Emily was no one’s friend. She was a bully, a drunk, and a narcissist. In this clever, knotty, and sporadically sexy thriller, flashbacks are the only thing that tell the truth, rushing to correct sidesteps and lies while the speaker is still talking, and even early on revealing a dark truth about Stephanie that suddenly exposes her character as not just a cardigan-clad Stepford caricature, but the Antigone of after-school snacks.
Paul Feig films are about women discovering they’re capable of summoning awesome, terrifying powers. They can become spies, bust ghosts, catch crooks, and wreck their closest friendships. “A Simple Favor” sets Kendrick loose to do all four, some more figuratively than others. There’s so much on Feig’s checklist that you’re not sure where the film is going till it arrives, and an emotional beat involving Emily’s hunky professor husband Sean (“Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding) doesn’t register as loudly as it should. But the film feels a lot like the Serge Gainsbourg number that Stephanie dances to in the kitchen: jazzy, a little sleazy, and worth a cult following.
Blake Lively‘s Emily saunters into the lonely single mom’s life in slow motion, the camera gaping as she exits a Porsche wearing a pinstripe suit and stilettos to pick up her son. Their boys (Ho and Joshua Satine) are playmates, so the total opposites play at being friends, too. Inside Emily’s monochromatic modernist home, Stephanie in her cute pink sweater is as glaringly out of place as a character like Stephanie herself should be in a film that’s “Gone Girl” meets grade-schoolers. By the second act, she’ll have settled into that house, with its dramatic nude portrait of Emily in eye-line of the fridge, and settled our doubts that a helicopter parent would make a great sleuth. After all, Stephanie has a mother’s sense of knowing when someone is telling a fib, plus she’s detail-oriented and exhaustingly active. A catty parent who spots her posting pictures of Emily across town sneers, “Any excuse to use a stapler.”
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Kendrick makes Stephanie naive without making her dumb, delivering her lines like an awkward A-student trying to suss if a C is a mistake. Usually in an investigation thriller, the script spends its time shading in the missing person while the gumshoe is a stock character propelled forward like a bullet from a gun. One of the pleasures of Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, is that “A Simple Favor” gradually reveals Stephanie to us even as she’s discovering things about herself. There’s a giant question about her that the film dangles and doesn’t answer, the kind of thing I can imagine got cut because the audience comment cards would have gone crazy. But it’s enough, maybe more than enough, to make us fascinated by this woman who first comes across like a cartoon.
Lively has her moments, too, many of them physical, like the way she rips off her tuxedo dickey before serving up two cold martinis. (Costumer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus gets a special citation for Emily’s menswear-inspired wardrobe, striking enough that her closet becomes one of the film’s resonant set-pieces.) Lively’s Emily is both repellent and irresistible. When she threatens to cure Stephanie’s “female habit” of over-apologizing with a slap, you believe her. Later, she casually mentions an erotic encounter with Sean’s female teaching assistant, so that Feig can layer a will-they-or-won’t-they tension over scenes of the two women boozing on the couch. And when Golding’s Sean does comes home, the couple pounce on each other, making the pulses pound of everyone who eager to see the overnight leading man of “Crazy Rich Asians” in another passionate clinch. Or maybe that thumping is just a side-effect of the fun. As Stephanie cautions, “Secrets are like margarine — easy to spread, bad for the heart.”