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Grant yourself ‘A Simple Favor’

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When I first saw a trailer for “A Simple Favor,” I was intrigued. Sure, I figured it was basically going to be another “Gone Girl” knockoff – I wasn’t familiar with the 2017 Darcey Bell book of the same name or anything, but it all seemed pretty clear how this was going to go. I assumed I had it all figured out.

But you know what they say about when you assume.

I should have been suspicious. Paul Feig – best known for making sitcoms and Melissa McCarthy-led comedies – was in the director’s chair. The odd couple pairing of Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick as the leads. Still, I went into the theater expecting an entertaining, albeit fairly formulaic thriller.

Instead, I got something else. “A Simple Favor” definitely has “Gone Girl” in its DNA, but Feig has reflected the standard “Lost Woman” thriller through the skewed lens of his own absurd-leaning sensibility. The result is a movie riddled with twists and turns, filled with weird secrets and outlandish choices. It is somehow deadly serious and rather silly at the same time, with neither tone undermining the other. And it sure is fun to watch.

Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) is a single mother who is devoted to her son, volunteering at school to such a degree that some of the other parents resent her. She runs a video blog devoted to mom stuff, because of course she does.

Things change for Stephanie when she meets Emily Nelson (Blake Lively, “All I See is You”), a high-powered PR executive. When their sons become friends and demand playdates, the squeaky-clean mommy blogger and the foul-mouthed fashion plate are thrust together. It isn’t long before they become friends, spending afternoons drinking martinis and sharing secrets.

Stephanie also meets Sean (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”), Emily’s husband and a once-successful novelist who hasn’t written a word in nearly a decade. The marriage is a strange one, though Emily and Sean don’t appear to be lacking for passion.

But one day, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son at school while she sees to some business. Stephanie agrees … and Emily disappears.

In the days that follow, Stephanie tries with increasing desperation to find her friend. Things turn tragic, leading Stephanie and Sean to seek comfort in one another’s company. But just how deep does the tragedy go? Exactly who was Emily Nelson? As Stephanie investigates, she finds out more and more about her new friend … including just how much she didn’t know.

Going into more detail would do a disservice to the viewer, because here’s the thing: “A Simple Favor” gets weird. Like, really weird. All while staying true to the established tropes of this particular subgenre of thriller, mind you, but yeah. Weird. In a good way – a great way, actually.

There’s a delightful degree of the unexpected baked into this film. We have a pretty set idea of how these types of stories are told. We know the beats, we know the clichés … there’s a familiar structure. But while “A Simple Favor” adheres to that structure, the execution within the beats, the usage of the clichés – Feig manages to surprise us. He offers quick hits of levity, comedic moments that you don’t often get in this sort of thriller, while still maintaining the overall seriousness of the thing. It doesn’t ALWAYS make sense, but that’s OK – it’s all part of the fun.

The term “mommy noir” has been tossed around with regards to this movie, and I think it’s an apt descriptor. Dropping a suburban mom into a plot that could have been lifted from Hammett or MacDonald probably shouldn’t work, but it does. Credit to Feig for finding ways to make all of it – the genre expectations, the narrative complexities, the oddball humor – fit together.

It doesn’t hurt that he has Anna Kendrick taking the lead. She’s one of the few people out there capable of making a role like this work. She has the combination of youthful energy, acting chops and weirdo sense of humor to bring Stephanie to life. The character has to take so many outlandish turns, yet Kendrick handles it smoothly. Lively is a great foil, cursing around martinis and dressing like a stripper’s idea of a fashion model. It’s a dark turn for her. The chemistry with Kendrick is fantastic; they’re a phenomenal on-screen duo.

The rest of the cast is solid. For a guy who had never been in a movie before this year, Henry Golding is doing all right for himself, following up “Crazy Rich Asians” with this one. He’s got something, for sure – hopefully, he keeps finding roles that allow him to show it. The kids are fine – they’re kids. Also worth noting are the fun supporting turns from Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack and Aparna Nancherla as fellow parents – they take full advantage of their brief time on screen.

“A Simple Favor” is so much more than the simple thriller it might appear to be. It is a loving subversion of the genre while also being an advocate for same. It is smart and funny, rife with twists that grow ever weirder and more extreme. With excellent performances and an entertaining story, it’s a fantastic time at the movies.

[5 out of 5]

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