As he proved with Bridesmaids, Spy and The Heat, director Paul Feig knows how to bring out the scrappy best in actresses (he’s a modern-day George Cukor). And in A Simple Favor, Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively shine as they rarely have before. True, the script, adapted by Jessica Sharzer from the Darcey Bell novel, meets at a crossroads between comedy and thriller without deciding which direction to go (our vote: head for the giggles). But until an ending that flies ruinously off the rails, A Simple Favor is raunchy fun that offers an unexpected take on the twists and turns of female friendship.
Kendrick plays Stephanie, a volunteer-crazed single parent who’s the living definition of a helicopter mom to grade-school son Miles (Joshua Satine), with a mommy vlog watched mostly by herself. Her husband and half-brother both died in the same car accident, and — in a tantalizing and telling bit of counterprogramming to Stephanie’s established persona — the script remains unclear about which one is Miles’ father. Lively takes the role of Emily, a strutting, stiletto-clad fashionista whose attitude is as cool as the gin martinis she serves dry and ice cold. The comparatively homely Stephanie does not understand why this glam diva has invited her to her sleek Connecticut mansion for a drink. It’s true that Emily’s son, Nicky (Ian Ho), is in the same class as Miles. But Stephanie, who wears animal-print socks from Target, and Emily, a power publicist for a couture house in Manhattan, are hardly natural BFF material. When Stephanie suggests a play date for the boys, Emily deadpans, “I already have a play date with a symphony of antidepressants.” From Gossip Girl on, Lively has portrayed more than her fair share of goody-goodies, so it’s a treat to watch her bring out her inner mean girl. Emily schools the perpetually contrite Stephanie in the art of never having to say you’re sorry: “Baby, if you apologize again, I’m going to have to slap the sorry out of you.”
Feig distracts from the sound of plot gears grinding by giving Kendrick and Lively a real chance to make characters of the cardboard cutouts they’re playing. Loosened up by those chilled martinis in Emily’s airy modern living room, the ladies are soon sharing secrets about sex and three-ways (OK, that’s mostly Emily) and indulging in a Sapphic kiss. Enter Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians), who does everything but get it on with his wife right in front of their flustered guest. It’s then that Emily asks her new friend for that simple favor — could she pick up Nicky from school?
Days later, when Emily still hasn’t come home (Sean is busy caring for his sick mother), things take on a sinister tone. That leads Stephanie to play amateur sleuth, letting Kendrick show her flair for physical comedy. On her vlog, Stephanie shares the story of her missing friend, and her viewership starts spiking. She visits Emily’s office and has a run-in with her haughty boss, fashion designer Dennis Nylon (hilariously played by Rupert Friend, having a blast on a break from gloomy roles such as Peter Quinn on Homeland). Regarding Stephanie like an insect who’s crawled up his pant leg, he quips, “Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you’d know that.”
The real pain starts when the cops get involved, and the plot settles into a whodunit and a question of whether that “who” had help. It’s Hitchcock 101 with a mechanical feel that slows the momentum built up by the characters. It’s not hard to figure out where the story is going, yet Feig keeps the mystery percolating while Kendrick and Lively perfect all the plays that prove they’re a dream team of opposites. Flying over the obstacles the script puts in their way, they turn A Simple Favor into a raunchy, R-rated laughfest. Don’t miss the chance to watch these live wires set off sparks.