Based on the Darcey Bell novel of the same name, A Simple Favor is a sinuous thriller with as many twists and turns as a mountain road. The sleek film adaptation is part Gone Girl, part Hitchcock film, unexpectedly shot through with director Paul Feig’s signature wry humor.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger who uses her digital platform to search for her best friend, Emily (Blake Lively), when she suddenly goes missing. As the police hunt for Emily, Stephanie grows close to Emily’s hunky novelist husband, Sean (Henry Golding), but things begin to unravel as both women’s pasts expose dark secrets.
Feig has made a name for himself with outrageous comedies like Bridemaids, but he’s also proved that he’s amply equipped to handle suspense and reversals with mystery-driven projects like The Heat and Spy. Here, Feig ditches laugh-out-loud moments and physical gags for a more sinister domestic thriller with a slick overlay emphasized by Lively’s sartorial splendor and a dash of continental je ne sais quoi. The film is full of panache, from its sexy French score to its glistening gin martinis, and it weaponizes style, using it to keep audiences off balance as the mystery unfolds.
Unlike the grim humorlessness of so many recent female-led thrillers, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer cast a winking eye over some of the film’s more outlandish scenarios, particularly the competitive antics of elementary school parents. (Andrew Rannells laps up his screen time in a small supporting role as a judgmental dad.) Sharzer laces the script with delicious one-liners and coal-black comedy that doesn’t subvert the suspense so much as sharpen it.
More than anything, the film benefits from pitch-perfect casting. Kendrick embraces the qualities that helped her break out in Up in the Air (2009): Despite often being cast as such, she’s not a bubbly leading lady, but something spikier and altogether more interesting. Lending Stephanie an unhinged quality that constantly calls into question her reliability as a narrator, Kendrick crafts a sickly humorous portrait of a type-A woman whose overzealous nature masks (or tries to, at least) her own awareness of how inherently unlikable she is.
Lively gives full Hitchcock blonde with glee, a flawless foil to the manic nature of Kendrick’s Stephanie. Her more enigmatic qualities as an actress are perfectly calibrated in Emily’s icy, unflappable exterior, finding a sweet spot for her that often eludes the actress. Lively delivers on all fronts, a knockout in the intimidating, exquisitely tailored clothes she sports like armor.
Golding, who has emerged as a winning leading man with the massive success of Crazy Rich Asians this summer, already begins to subvert that image in A Simple Favor. He is effortlessly delightful, with real movie star charm, a potent weapon he wields with grace and skill here. Trading on his toothy grin and comfortable handsomeness, he upends expectations at every turn, keeping audiences (and Stephanie) guessing. It’s a pleasure to see him so readily divert his easy appeal into something more duplicitous.
Knockout cast aside, the script is slightly too winding for its own good. An abundance of red herrings lessens the impact of the truth when it’s finally revealed. Stephanie and Emily are given shadowy pasts that never render into anything satisfying. Obsession and voyeurism are beloved cinematic themes, but here they receive a surface glossing, relying on shorthand instead of cutting to a seductive, gruesome heart. The film circles around timely themes about the pressures of motherhood; what it costs to be seen as the perfect wife, employee, woman; and the breaking point of impossible expectations — the insidious, occasionally explosive impact of female rage so well plumbed in fiction of late. Caught up in the various threads it tugs at, A Simple Favor never quite sticks its landing, instead luxuriating in suspense for suspense’s sake. That still makes for a taut, absorbing, divinely chic ride, a tantalizing morsel with the unrealized promise of a more satisfying meal. B+