Review: Smother Mother Meets Femme Fatale in ‘A Simple Favor’

Posted September 13, 2018 2:50 p.m. EDT

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.)

Feig handily manages the mood and scene shifts, using regular laughs to brighten the deepening dark. By far his smartest move was to give Kendrick and 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 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 Feig reunite with Lively and Kendrick, who pump oxygen into their caricatures. As the adult Mean Girl that everyone falls for at some point, 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 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.

‘A Simple Favor’

Rated R for bad behavior and violence. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.