Is there a working filmmaker who loves actresses as much as Paul Feig evidently does? No other studio director seems as intent on creating showcases for his muses: Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy; Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters; and now, Blake Lively in the twisty comedy-thriller A Simple Favor. If you’ve only ever thought of Lively as a leggy blonde du jour—an impression I’ll regretfully cop to, though her failed effort to profit off the “Allure of Antebellum” certainly didn’t help—give yourself over to the pleasure of being outrageously wrong. A Simple Favor reintroduces Lively as a character actress—a sexy, funny, award-worthy revelation.
Female friendship is the cornerstone of all the films above. But here, Feig, adapting Darcey Bell’s novel of the same name, explores the darker, more volatile fringes of such relationships. If Lively is the surprise, Anna Kendrick is our stalwart, playing the suitably named Stephanie Smothers, a Modclothed mom with a parenting vlog who’s so together and sweet she inspires eye-rolls from the other parents (Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla, and Kelly McCormack). After a gasping Stephanie is introduced in slo-mo to Emily (Lively), a flawlessly tailored vision in a hepcat ladysuit, patterned Louboutins, and what might as well be Humphrey Bogart’s fedora, her long pre-Raphaelite tresses somehow deflecting the rain, the prim PTA mom and the barb-tongued fashionista become unlikely best friends. From the film’s flash-forward prologue, though, we know that Emily, after leaving her kindergarten-age son (Ian Ho) in Stephanie’s charge, will soon go missing. When that happens, Stephanie resolves to discover what happened and how the latter’s husband Sean (a smoldering Henry Golding), a one-hit-wonder of a novelist, might be involved—all while contending with her own history of making catastrophic decisions while grieving.
The mystery mostly holds together, but A Simple Favor’s early scenes are still its best, as Emily, the head of public relations for a designer brand, (mostly) platonically seduces widowed homemaker Stephanie with her wit, glamour, confidence, sophistication, and bracing honesty about her family’s dire financial situation. The acidic bon mots that Emily tosses in Stephanie’s direction during their martini-soaked afternoons in the married woman’s glass box of a living room—a painting of the lady of the house’s pubic triangle hanging over the duo at all times—are where Lively shines most. (The one-liners in Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay are consistent and sharp—sometimes disturbingly so. Responding to Stephanie’s fears of dating online, Emily offers her life philosophy: “If your head’s gonna end up in a trash can, your head’s gonna end up in a trash can.”) Kendrick, too, shows off her range in the richest role she’s gotten in years. The co-stars’ banter, which occasionally reaches a screwball staccato, colors Stephanie and Emily’s shifting relationship with an emotional iridescence. Does Emily want to share her knowledge of London gin brands, or is she trying to get Stephanie liquored up? Is Stephanie just nursing a girl crush on Emily, or is her admiration tinged by a callous envy that mushrooms after her friend’s disappearance?
Feig sets up a tonal tightrope for himself, and he mostly manages to skip across it. A Simple Favor lacks the emotional depth of Spy and Bridesmaids, his masterpieces, but it still glints with wicked fun. The whodunit taxes our patience with one detour too many, and the recurring mommy-vlogger bit feels a bit desperate for relevance, but it’s hard to begrudge any individual leg of the trip. A sense of collaborative thrill—between noted suit aficionado Feig, costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, and fashion plate Lively, who’s wowed with three-piece menswear before—suffuses Emily’s wardrobe of achingly chic suits. (It’s impossible to choose a favorite, but the cropped tux with scarlet-leather gloves that Emily dons to pick up her son from his play date at the park is hard to beat.) In a mini–Freaks and Geeks reunion between Feig and one of that show’s stars, Linda Cardellini gets to indulge in the kind of raw-nerves role we seldom see her in anymore. And despite his underwritten character, comedian Bashir Salahuddin threatens to steal several scenes from a stellar Kendrick as the detective on Emily’s case.
But there’s no doubt about it: The movie belongs to Lively, who’s fiercely missed as soon as she exits from the screen. The script, full of unreliable narrators, never has a precise handle on how untrustworthy Emily is, and so her ultimate fate carries with it a minor disappointment. But Lively is knowing and anguished and dazzling and inviting, finally unfettered by her unconvincing everywoman leading roles. Her beauty and charisma weaponized, she’s ready to pounce. Welcome to the Blake-aissance.
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