In order for A Simple Favor to hook us, it had to be in on the joke, which lies in its very premise: just say the words “mommy blogger mystery thriller” and try to avoid a laugh. Paul Feig’s movie adaptation of Darcey Bell’s novel of the same name does succeed in selling its inherent madness, and that’s largely to the credit of its two main stars. Anna Kendrick plays a chipmunk-voiced mommy vlogger seeking partnership and purpose in a mysterious friend. The friend (Blake Lively) is a workaholic mom who conflates her kindness with weakness. There’s a lot one could cull from those archetypes alone (the performance of motherhood, appearances, etc.), but the movie doesn’t bother with illusions of depth, nor does that matter much in this case, because the dynamic between Kendrick and Lively is enough to make for a fun, scandalous watch, even as the plot cascades over the deep end.
It’s immediately apparent how much Kendrick and Lively enjoyed playing respective sweet and acidic roles. Kendrick’s character, Stephanie Smothers, is appropriately named. She’s the brand of curiously vibrant PTA mom (a widow) who dotes on her child, cooks like she has a Martha Stewart Masters, and broadcasts her recipes/crafts on her spirited mommy vlog. Blake Lively plays her bitter opposite Emily Nelson, a fashion PR director in preposterous heels and tailored suits with pocket squares who happily buried her maternal instincts long ago. Emily is perfect and dark. She’s married to a one-time best-selling author turned college professor, Sean Townsend (played by the stately, arresting Henry Golding, star of Crazy Rich Asians). She has a large artist’s rendering of herself and her vagina in her large home.
Through their grade school-age sons, Stephanie and Emily become the most tenuous of girlfriends, and an opposites-attract storyline is born over rounds of martinis and increasingly illuminating playdates in a Connecticut suburb. Stephanie is envious, naturally enthralled with Emily’s persona and lifestyle: the big, window-filled home, the handsome husband, etc. She describes Emily to her hundred or so viewers as “this wonderful elegant person.” The “simple favor” in question is actually more than one favor: Emily continuously asks Stephanie to pick up her son after school until Emily goes missing and, subsequently, becomes fodder for Stephanie’s vlog. There’s grim social commentary in the fact that murder and intrigue brings thousands of new subscribers, but it’s the type of commentary you’re left to annotate in your own time.
At first, it’s hard to tell if A Simple Favor is going for Gone Girl (on the Train), or if it’s content to just be a treacherous buddy-comedy thriller dressed as Big Little Lies (the suburbia backdrop and needling side comments from fellow parents, played by Aparna Nancherla, Andrew Rannells of Girls fame, and Kelly McCormack are easy parallels). Quickly, it’s obvious that it’s all the above, and that whatever magic we see is the work of Kendrick and Lively making it look good and easy, under Feig’s direction. The best parts—the majority of the first half—focus on just the two of them, in scenes that read like Charlotte and Samantha, or Joan and Toni, got trapped in a noir.
Despite the fatal subject matter, the effect is mostly light and pleasant. Lively plays Emily with all the savory callousness of a Disney villain. To Stephanie’s effervescence, Emily volleys insults in the form of consult, like a saucy, unhelpful self-help book come to life; she admits to being a bad mother while encouraging Stephanie to embrace her inner bitch and stop apologizing. Stephanie’s personality is, in contrast, sweetened with Stevia, so much that her sunshine tone becomes noxious over time (Kendrick sells it all the way through). But then, well, the twists come in familiar form: a deranged sequence of events meant to take you from Oh… to Ohhh! turns into a sinister, way too involved one-up competition, replete with role-playing, Nancy Drew-esque probing, shocking reveals, and a murderous plot that bends and snakes like a Tom Cruise car chase.
The movie’s long-term allure comes down to its humor—in particular, an incest storyline begets a funny nickname that becomes a running joke. What matters is that you walk away thinking about the women: two mothers with different aspirations of perfection, neither quite admirable. Kendrick and Lively, under Feig’s direction, manage to sell this wild tale of non-friendship gone awry by pulling off a number of tricks, all of which turn out to be just crazy enough to work.
A Simple Favor is currently playing in theaters nationwide.