Film Review: A Simple Favor

Blake Lively emerges as a delectable, bonafide star in this diverting if muddled modern noir.
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To that honorable if slightly tawdry roll call of memorable film noir femme fatalesMary Astor (The Maltese Falcon), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Jane Greer (Out of the Past), Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening (The Grifters), you can most definitely add Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. In this Paul Feig-directed, Jessica Sharzer-scripted thriller (from the novel by Darcey Bell), Lively plays the rich, imperiously sexy and mysterious Emily Nelson, who inveigles her unlikely new friend, Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a mousy, slightly annoying overachiever of a widowed housewife, into her opulent, martini-drenched suburban world with so much Dietrich-esque suggestiveness and brazen audacity that you attend to everything this irresistibly androgynous minx says or does.

The super-twisted plot has Emily going missing, perhaps even dead; a finger points to the husband (Henry Golding) Stephanie heard her referring to with a bewildering mix of contempt and passion. As a relationship grows between Stephanie and Emily’s hubby Sean and they bond over their children, Stephanie tries to break the case by alerting her followers on the domestic mommy-goddess daily blog she operates from her sparkling kitchen with relentlessly chipper enthusiasm.

Feig’s direction is silken-smooth in the opening passages, which draw you in through a combination of intrigue and insouciant comedy, generated by the highly contrasting personalities and physiques of the beyond-louche Emily and tightly wound, unsophisticated Stephanie. Kendrick’s interplay with Lively’s big, alluringly langurous temptress is deliciously diverting, but the script could have used some judicious editing; a surfeit of credibility-straining, overly antic plot developments crowd the last third of the film, which until then had an intriguingly languid pace. It’s not entirely clear whether the filmmakers mean for you to take it all seriously or just give up and laugh at the mounting U-turn outrageousness, much like the way John Huston would sometimes lazily send up his movies by their end, perhaps out of a veteran’s boredom.

Kendrick seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself, acting with a fussy, uptight energy that, while brightly efficient, is something we have seen her and many others do before—starting with Jean Arthur, who made this gambit her stock-in-trade. It pales next to the startlingly original presence of the devastating Lively. Golding, as he was in Crazy Rich Asians, is crazy handsome and rather charmingly nonplussed by all the feverish estrogen around him. Two bright young actors, Ian Ho and Joshua Satine, are mercifully almost completely devoid of movie-kid precocity as the children in the story. And on the periphery are a pair of flamboyantly rendered gay clichés: Rupert Friend as Emily‘s designer boss, who recoils at being compared to Tom Ford, and Andrew Rannells doing a Paul Lynde as a vicious, busybody single-dad neighbor, holding his baby daughter like an Hermes accessory.