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Watch out for the suburban female noir films — they can sneak up on you, silent but deadly. The latest example of the genre is “A Simple Favor,” starring the ever-bubbly Anna Kendrick and former “Gossip Girl” star Blake Lively. Directed by Paul Feig, known for comedies like “Bridesmaids,” the film takes on the “Gone Girl”-style of female-driven thriller with surprisingly fun results.
The plot reads like the average airport bookstore paperback. Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, an overachieving “Mommy Blogger” who owns her own helium tank because kids love balloons. Somehow she winds up making best friends with the hard-nosed, hard-drinking businesswoman Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), someone who seems to have it all, including the perfect house, the perfect kid and the sexy husband (played by the suddenly everywhere Henry Golding, who brings his British accent with him.)
Directed by Paul Feig, known for comedies like “Bridesmaids,” the film takes on the “Gone Girl”-style of female-driven thriller with surprisingly fun results.
She also has more emotional baggage and secrets that any one character should ever be burdened with. In order for Smothers to start peeling back the layers of her new friend, Nelson must first disappear, which she obligingly does within the first 30 minutes of the film. But even as the movie sounds like it’s a dark and stormy thriller, the comedic elements remain, from Kendrick’s uber-mother Smothers, to Blake Lively’s faux femme fatale.
The result is a modern take on the Hitchcock thriller: a vanished woman; a neighborhood of fellow parents (Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack) who function as a Greek chorus; comedian Bashir Salahuddin as the main detective, whose eyes glint whenever he smells an arrest on the horizon; and a new secret around every corner. The exposition is interspersed with Smother’s vlog entries, which grow increasingly viral as she uses her little cooking segments to talk through the disappearance of her friend. The backgrounds where she films and her recommended recipes provide an often hilarious commentary on Smothers’ current emotional state. These surprising moments of levity make the film more enjoyable.
The film throws in all the clichés of the “female noir” genre. Before the story is done there’s been incest, paternity questions, secret siblings, mistaken identities and of course, murder most foul. But though Feig seems to be playing outside his normal comedy wheelhouse, in reality he finds a way to dig out the funny in every scene.
Meanwhile, for those who may have written off Lively as a teen sensation now relegated to playing leggy blondes in B-list films like 2016’s “The Shallows,” her performance is a revelation. Her character steals almost every scene she’s in, expertly delivers the film’s best plot twist and some of its best lines as well. (As Nelson wisely notes, “If your head’s gonna end up in a trash can, your head’s gonna end up in a trash can.”) These surprises are both sharp and hilarious, even when audiences can see them coming a mile away.
Still, for my money the best part of the film is that first 30 minutes, when Kendrick and Lively build the most unlikely of female friendships over gin martinis. Both women are pursuing some sort of outward perfection, albeit in two completely different spheres. Kendrick’s mommy blogger is a mad, Modcloth vision of motherhood and Lively’s polished PR exec is the queen of cleaning up the messes her Tom Ford-knockoff of a boss makes. But despite their differences, the two are made of the same steel on the inside, making them formidable frenemies.
Under different direction, this story could have wound up a cheap imitation of recent hits like “Big Little Lies” and “Sharp Objects” over on HBO. As the layers peel back, suspicion shifts from one person to the next. There are even times when it seems like Kendrick’s character could be the most secretive one of all. Is she really Nelson’s best friend? Or has a girl crush curdled into something more sinister?
Despite all the drama, “A Simple Favor” isn’t a movie with a whole lot of emotional depth. Like most potboilers, the subtext had a stubborn tendency to spell itself out as text, and though Lively and Kendrick work hard to keep their characters from becoming caricatures, they’re fighting a genre that prefers archetypes.
Still, in an era where so many narratives — especially thrillers — seem to be motivated by dead white women, it’s nice to see a movie where the women involved are far too smart to end up on an autopsy table.