Blake Lively Burns Brightly In Paul Feig's "A Simple Favor"

Unlike genre brethren “Gone Girl” and “The Girl On The Train,” mystery thriller “A Simple Favor” is blithely uninterested in solemnity. It wears its gaudy airport novel garb with pride, doling out pulp with the precision of a commercial grade juicer. Director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”) and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, adapting Darcey Bell’s book of the same name, happily ride a delectably devious performance from Blake Lively (“The Shallows”) to the promised land – or the vicinity thereof, at least.

Anna Kendrick (“Up In The Air”) stars as Stephanie Smothers, a widowed mother whose bubbly arts and crafts vlog doubles as a play for cachet in her suburban Connecticut community. In her stilted attempts at social climbing, she befriends a fellow elementary school mom, Emily Nelson (Lively). Emily’s impeccable wardrobe and picturesque home are mere reminders of a deep-seated unhappiness; she maintains a job as public relations director for a renowned designer because her husband’s writing career no longer pays the bills.

As Stephanie and Emily’s young sons become friends, the two women size each other up – usually over martinis – feeling out a social symbiosis. The nominal friendship works for a little while, with Emily giving Stephanie visibility among a Greek chorus of school parents (Broadway star Andrew Rannells stands out in a supporting role) while Stephanie happily schleps Emily’s son around. Our leads have little in common but a dark secret or two, although only Emily is truly mysterious, her aforementioned husband Sean (Henry Golding) gliding through the house like a handsome apparition.

One day, a playdate between the two boys becomes an impromptu sleepover. Emily is missing. Figurative breadcrumbs lead to literal ones, with Stephanie incorporating smiley pleas for Emily’s return into her vlog. Meanwhile, the authorities diligently investigate leads. Emily is apparently prone to disappearing for days at a time, her husband initially unconcerned.

Then, the first of many twists that sets Stephanie off on the journey of her wildest dreams. In Emily’s absence Stephanie very nearly becomes Emily, taking to the missing’s glamorous attire and attractive husband like a duck to water. Although Lively’s presence is negligible during the back half of the film, she haunts the narrative like a spectre, largely in elegantly executed flashbacks.

The only thing that can be revealed bout Emily’s fate that doesn’t involve heavy spoilers is that she ends up one of the decade’s great femme fatales. Lively’s performance is an unqualified career high and just enough to overcome an overwritten third act. One twist too many and secretive characters suddenly becoming chatterboxes brings the fun to a low hum. But Lively thrills to the opportunity to show her range, anchoring a self-aware neo-noir like she’s done it a dozen times before.

Not as good as “Gone Girl” but leagues better than “The Girl On The Train,” Paul Feig’s surprising follow up to the divisive “Ghostbusters” proves one of the year’s more pleasant surprises. Few films could sustain such tawdry fun for two full hours and “A Simple Favor” isn’t one of them. But it’s a respectable time at the movies for anyone in the mood for a splash of sleaze – and Lively’s take-no-prisoners performance is an absolute triumph.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 14, 2018
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Paul Feig
Screenwriter: Jessica Sharzer
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence)