3.5 out of 5 stars.
Stephanie and Emily couldn’t be more different. Stephanie is an upbeat suburban mommy vlogger who wears demure sweaters and obsessively participates in every activity in her son’s first-grade class. Emily is barely around for her son; she has a high-profile public relations job in the city. She’s foul-mouthed, drinks a lot, and wears elegant pantsuits. And yet somehow they become friends—close enough friends, in fact, that when Emily mysteriously goes missing, Stephanie takes it upon herself to investigate her disappearance.
This is the premise of “A Simple Favor,” a comedy thriller directed by Paul Feig and based on a novel of the same name. The film opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) recounting a history of her friendship with Emily (Blake Lively) to viewers of her vlog. Five days ago, Emily asked Stephanie for a “simple favor:” to pick her son up from school and watch him for a while because she would be at work late. But Emily never came home, and, as she gets to know Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) better, Stephanie realizes that there was much more to Emily than she realized.
“A Simple Favor” has all the stylings of a thriller: beautiful costumes, beautiful settings, and beautiful people. But it’s often hard to tell if this movie is taking itself seriously or not. For the most part, it plays like a parody of “Gone Girl”-esque thrillers, an appropriate direction for frequent comedy director Feig to take it in. The script contains a lot of sharp and funny dialogue that is perfectly delivered by the actors. Kendrick and Lively are delicious in their roles, Lively the cool noir femme fatale, Kendrick the bubbly mom who is seemingly the exact opposite. The supporting cast also includes Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla as fellow parents who hilariously observe the drama between Stephanie and Emily throughout the film.
From the opening scene, the film does appear to be going in the direction of a parody: Stephanie, filming her vlog, stops in the middle of discussing a new recipe to provide updates on the disappearance and potential murder of her friend. This contrast between serious and superficial, and the idea that everyone has secrets, continues throughout the film, but while the humor remains present, after a while the tone shifts some and plays out more like a straightforward suspense movie. The film is immensely fun and entertaining, in large part due to its wacky, trashy sense of humor, but as the mystery starts to unravel, it actually becomes less interesting. The plot becomes wrapped up in a series of unnecessary twists that actually become rather predictable once the audience is fed certain details. The more intriguing scenes come earlier in the film, and revolve around shared encounters with Emily and Stephanie. The two have such great chemistry—Stephanie is unusually drawn to Emily the moment she lays eyes on her—and there’s a lot more to their relationship that could have been explored to better effect. But after splitting them up, the story makes the mistake of assuming that Emily is the most interesting character. She is, as Sean says, an enigma, but it’s Stephanie’s journey and how her life changes after Emily goes missing that propels the story forward.
“A Simple Favor” is melodramatic fun made better by its actors, at least until its third act. Unlike the vlog audience, who only see and hear what Stephanie wants them to see and hear, the movie-going audience sees and knows everything. It may be flawed, and yet, this film presents its trainwreck of a trio of leads and allows us to gape at how messed up they are for two hours, and there’s a special sort of entertainment to be gained from that.
Runtime: 117 minutes. Rated R.