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Movie Review: A simple pleasure

A Simple Favor tastily blends comedy and mystery in a martini glass, with Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as its two main ingredients.

When Gone Girl released in September 2014, it became its own subgenre. The Girl on the Train was labeled as the “next Gone Girl” before it turned out to be a failed clone, and Big Little Lies was HBO’s episodic response to the breakout hit.

The subgenre, psychological thrillers aimed at adult women about regular women who get caught up in murder mysteries based on airport novels, has its 2018 answer with A Simple Favor. It’s our lightest take on the subgenre yet — it stars Anna Kendrick of Pitch Perfect and Trolls fame, and is directed by Paul Feig (Ghostbusters 2016, Spy, Bridesmaids). And it’s the best since Gone Girl.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a squirrely soccer mom with a housewife-themed YouTube show. She volunteers to bring the helium tank she owns to the next school party and utters “oopsie” whenever someone near her curses. When Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson shows up late to pick up her son from school, dressed like a female James Bond, she invites Smothers over for a much-needed drink.

Lively’s transition to the big screen from Gossip Girl has been mostly successful, and here she shows just how much she can bury herself in a character. There are no secrets about Nelson — within their first encounter Smothers bears witness to her alcoholism, rudeness to her boss and nude body displayed via painting mounted in her living room. Kendrick and Lively play deliciously off each other, and since this is a murder mystery, there’s always a sense of dread beneath their humor.

A few weeks into their friendship, Nelson calls Smothers and asks for a simple favor — pick her kid up from school due to a crisis at work. Nelson isn’t seen or heard from for weeks after that — and police have their eyes on Smothers.

Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay is adapted from Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, and both are smart enough to keep the next story beat from ever being within the audience’s expectations. There’s a hint of jealousy in Kendrick’s eyes that lingers just a moment too long. Lively channels contempt into her character when someone takes her photo, which she demands is deleted. And Nelson’s husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) is clearly struggling to fight off inner demons. There’s mystery and secrets layered in every note, and Feig makes sure every moment is as meaningful as it is slick.

Whereas Gone Girl indulges on gore and itself, Favor keeps things light as a glass of Riesling. Feig’s career started as a comedy director (he created Freaks and Geeks in 1999), and recently he’s specialized in blending comedy with other genres. Spy is as much an action thriller as it is underappreciated, and Ghostbusters mixed in action with its mediocrity. Here he takes his first stab at a mystery — and while at times the plot flies off the rails, it’s all by design. It’s overall better at being a comedy than a mystery, but Feig proves he can pull off a plot twist just as well as a punchline.

Sit back, drink a glass of wine (or a non-poisoned martini) and enjoy. ••

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