A Simple Favor walks a tightrope. It is first and foremost a thriller — a cocktail of Hitchcock and Gone Girl — but directed by a comedian, Paul Feig. It has a sharp satirical edge — throw in some of The ‘Burbs and Arrested Development and /r/ShitMomGroupsSay amidst the genre elements. The challenge, executed at a near-master level by Feig, is that if the thriller ever becomes too dark, it loses its comic bite, and if it ever tries too hard to tell a joke, it loses its sense of tension. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie that has such a juicy, twisty plot while simultaneously making me laugh my ass off so often, as if the divergent genre elements are actually convergent in this scenario.
The movie follows Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) as she deals with the disappearance of her friend Emily (Blake Lively) shortly after Emily asked Stephanie for “a simple favor” of picking up her son after school one day. Stephanie is a single mom who runs a mommy vlog that grows increasingly popular as the case unfolds, giving us a sort of framing device for the story. I really don’t want to spoil the rest of it, because the revelations and twists unfold at such a steady, pleasing drip.
Kendrick and Lively absolutely carry the film, and I changed my mind about which one was better about ten times. It is easily the best performance I’ve seen for either of them (and the supporting cast, including Henry Golding and Bashir Salahuddin are great, too). Kendrick has more to do in the protagonist role, and pulls the entire range off remarkably well: She perfectly captures the sunny energy of an overly cheerful and meticulous mom who shapes her reality through sheer optimstic force of will. But Stephanie has moments of darker edge, too, and these aspects feed into each other in a way Kendrick captures perfectly. Her joke delivery is occasionally a bit shticky — and, in general, the jokey moments of the film are its weakest — but it’s really a memorable and terrific performance.
Yet I think I was more blown away by Lively. I’ve always found her electric on screen, but this takes it to a whole new level. She’s all danger and sex, framed as a towering figure of supermodel grace. Her sultry line-readings are understated, but packed with so much verve and audible smirk. (In particular, she has a repeated epithet she calls Stephanie that slays every single time.)
Feig, too, is doing great work. The film is shot in light, orderly tones, mostly in upscale interiors. The pace of the film is firecracker — maybe a bit overstretched in the final act, but barely — and Feig does a great job of giving every character moments to shine.. He also sprinkles in a few stylized visual touches that work really well: One particular flourish that stood out was Emily tossing a wrench in the air in slow-mo.
It all comes together in a campy, exciting, immensely watchable whole. The script is pulpy and decadent fun (if a bit convoluted down the stretch). The soundtrack uses French pop to add a layer of quasi-ironic elegance. I uttered “oh shit” and burst out laughing in frequent and near-equal measure; if that’s not the sign of a film worth watching, I’m not sure what is.