I’ll admit I enjoyed A Simple Favor more than I expected to. That’s probably because I read the Darcey Bell thriller novel that it’s based on and saw a Gone Girl rip-off coming a mile away, right down to the big non-shocking plot twist that comes in the middle. The movie is better, partly for structural reasons, but more for the spot-on casting of the two leads.
Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a widowed vlogger in Connecticut who lives off her late husband’s life insurance while broadcasting videos about making chocolate chip cookies and holiday decorations. When her young son (Jacob Satine) makes friends with another boy at school named Nicky (Ian Ho), Stephanie meets Nicky’s mother Emily (Blake Lively). Entranced by this stylish, elegant, free-swearing woman who mixes a mean martini and works a glamorous fashion-related job in New York, Stephanie is willing to do anything for her, including babysit Nicky for a few hours. However, when those few hours become a few days without any sign of Emily, Stephanie calls the cops, and her actively annoying vlog turns into bulletins about her new friend’s mysterious disappearance. Her viewership soars even while she digs through Emily’s life and finds all manner of disturbing information.
This is a canny career move for Paul Feig, the director who has been licking his wounds since the critical and financial failure of his Ghostbusters remake. A female-oriented thriller with comic scenes is a way for him to do something different without completely going away from his strengths as a filmmaker, as he fully exploits the laughs in the story of a mom blogger trying to solve a murder mystery. This soapy movie rattles along at a good pace and plays like a funnier version of one of Claude Chabrol’s films, especially with Feig’s inspired touch of scoring the movie with French pop songs from the 1960s.
A large part of the comedy comes from a deliciously funny Kendrick. Like many of her other roles, Stephanie is dorky, awkward, and eager to please, but this movie plays into that by having so many characters refer to her as “a saint” until she finally says, “I get that a lot.” Meanwhile, it gives her a distinctly unsaintly secret in her own past, which she makes the mistake of revealing to Emily in a desperate attempt to impress her. Kendrick’s comic skills are at full flag when Stephanie tries to strike a power pose while sitting on a bench that’s further away from the wall than she thinks, or when she tries on one of Emily’s dresses and then is forced to spend an entire police interview fiddling with it. These funny bits serve to make the film more horrifying when Stephanie finds herself caught up in the number of homicides that seem to happen around Emily.
The real surprise here, though, is Lively, who has too long been stuck playing bland heroines in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Green Lantern and The Age of Adaline. She seems liberated by the part of a slinky, sociopathic seductress who calls her mansion a “shithole” and makes jokes about killing herself and giving alcohol to the boys. Feig plays up the extreme height difference between Lively and Kendrick, but it’s her cold, cynical line readings that contrast effectively with Kendrick’s bright and sunny ones. These two actresses are so well matched that you want to cry.
Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer makes necessary changes to the plot to make Stephanie less of a patsy. The additional twists in the story work up until the very end, when Feig inserts an unnecessary epilogue that tells us what happened to the characters and takes the film a step too far into jokiness. Still, we do get Linda Cardellini as a punk lesbian artist with a connection to Emily and a funny Greek chorus of judgmental moms plus one gay dad (Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla, and Andrew Rannells). A Simple Favor makes for a nice double bill with Thoroughbreds for movies about toxic women negotiating a man’s world from posh Connecticut settings. Better yet, this disreputably entertaining thriller makes us see everybody involved in a new light.
A Simple Favor
Starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Directed by Paul Feig. Written by Jessica Sharzer, based on Darcey Bell’s novel. Rated R.