It’s a twist-filled psychological thriller first and foremost, which is unfortunate for the mischievous suburban satire that A Simple Favor wants to be.
Indeed, the latest saga of girls behaving badly from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) feels like multiple movies squeezed together into a domestic melodrama that offers only fleeting pleasures.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a helpful-hints vlogger and constantly upbeat young widow who volunteers for everything at her son’s elementary school, oblivious to the ridicule from the other jaded parents.
She befriends Emily (Blake Lively), an impulsive fashion executive who requests that Stephanie pick up her son after school and watch him for a few hours. It seems simple enough — thus the title — except that Emily never comes to pick him up. As hours turn into days, Stephanie reaches out to Emily’s jet-setting husband (Henry Golding), whose relative nonchalance about the disappearance reflects the troubled state of their marriage.
A distraught Stephanie reaches out to her online audience for help as she weighs the moral implications of integrating herself into Emily’s family. Is there something more sinister at play?
The film sets things up well enough, from the surface sheen of upper-class excess — immaculate homes both inside and out, trendy accessories, gossip over afternoon cocktails, a frothy soundtrack of French pop tunes — to the underpinned layers of dysfunction, parental irresponsibility, and socioeconomic division.
Both lead performances capture the intriguing character dynamics in the uneven screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (Nerve). Lively and Kendrick develop an appropriately uneasy chemistry with their exaggerated yet truthful characterizations that gradually leads to distrust. As Stephanie asks among the clever gags: “Are you trying to Diabolique me?”
As that reference suggests, the noir-style influences on the film’s tone seem to mix old and new, with the latter category including Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, two book adaptations with varied degrees of success. Likewise, it’s best not to take A Simple Favor too seriously.
The film adheres to that same approach for a while before it jettisons the snarky sense of humor in favor of endless red herrings and a convoluted series of twists and turns.
As a result, it’s difficult to sustain emotional investment in the resolution of the central mystery during an extended climax that doesn’t do moviegoers any favors.