When you think of the name Paul Feig, “crime thriller” probably isn’t the first genre that leaps to mind. The creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and director of comedy hits like “Spy,” “The Heat” and “Bridesmaids” has stayed pretty comfortably in his lane over the course of his 20-year career. So it makes you wonder why Lionsgate tapped him to direct “A Simple Favor,” adapted from Darcy Bell’s novel by “Nerve” screenwriter Jessica Sharzer. Sure, Feig has flirted with pathos and drama in previous projects, but this movie, which is far more “Gone Girl” than “Ghostbusters,” appears to come from way out in left field.
Clearly taking its inspiration from all sorts of twisty-turny suburban thrillers of the past, “A Simple Favor” stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie, the most nondescript single mom you could possibly imagine. She runs a mommy vlog and seems to have the perfect relationship with her kid. Sure, she tries too hard, but there’s no possible way that’s compensating for something, right? Her opposite in every conceivable way is Emily (Blake Lively), the PR director for a high-profile fashion designer (Rupert Friend, in an enjoyably sprightly cameo) and wife to a writer/professor (newly-minted superstar Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians”) who curses and drinks in front of her kid not because she’s a bad mother, but because she doesn’t buy in to the sort of classical parenting techniques you read about in books. The two women strike up a friendship of sorts; Emily is eternally hard to read in her motivations and true emotions, but when she goes missing after asking Stephanie to pick up her kid from school one day, everyone assumes the worst. Stephanie decides to take matters into her own hands, digging deeper into the mysterious woman’s past until she can get to the bottom of where her new best friend disappeared to.
For much of the first act, it’s tough to figure out exactly what Feig is up to with this one. It opens with a jazzy, spy-movie credit sequence for reasons that are not entirely clear. It positions itself very much as an odd couple comedy that’s more than content to poke fun at the sort of movies it seems to be aping – a sort of “Saturday Night Live” skewering of the “The Girl on the Trains” of the world writ large. It’s all a little too heightened; Stephanie is too aggressively wholesome and Emily is too outrageously shocking. The soundtrack, peppered with haughty French music, is too chic to be on the level. But when Emily goes missing and the plot gets serious, it becomes clear that Feig is just as interested in telling a pretty by-the-numbers riff on the pulpy suburban thriller genre. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing up his sleeve, because even as the stakes do rise, there are still plenty of laughs to be found. But those laughs aren’t at the expense of the premise in a way the first act seems to flirt with. After all, this is a heightened movie for heightened drama.
And the cast is definitely in on the act. It’s delicious fun watching Kendrick and Lively play against each other; they are so committed to their stereotypes and so clearly having a ball bringing them to life. Kendrick slides into Feig’s comedic cadence and sensibilities like a glove. She’s an ingénue who’s more than capable of unleashing some inner fire when cornered but just as hasty with a meek apology when she realizes what she’s done. She’s the exact sort of person to fly a little too under the radar to be comfortable when a murder investigation comes into play. Lively, on the other hand, owns the screen with little effort, strutting around in outfits that are consistently insane (think power suits by way of a fetish magazine) and striking a perfect contrast to Kendrick’s demure sweater-vest ensembles. She’s so uninhibited that she seems legitimately capable of anything. Lionsgate must be thrilled that they get to release a new Henry Golding movie while “Crazy Rich Asians” continues to tear up the box office, and his preternatural charm plays into it all wonderfully. Of course, this is all very deliberate, and the script plays on every one of those assumptions as the plot twists back and forth upon itself over and over again.
It’s a truly strange experience to watch as it rumbles toward a conclusion. It does exactly what you’d expect one of these movies to do, but in a way, that in itself is the trick. Feig proved with “Spy” (and perhaps a little less with “The Heat”) that he is perfectly at home with making a genre movie in his own image. His love for humor and irreverence can make it easy to forget that he’s a conventional storyteller at his core. “A Simple Favor” is exactly that – a pulpy, twisty thriller with some super fun lead performances that knows exactly what it is and is not interested in giving its audience any more or less. That may keep it contained in a way that “Spy” wasn’t (and that remains Feig’s filmic high point), but you would be hard-pressed finding much to gripe about. It’s a bounce back to form after “Ghostbusters” (which was clearly hampered by its PG-13 rating) and a reminder that watching Paul Feig play in the sandbox of an established genre will rarely lead you astray.
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Olivia Sandoval, Dustin Milligan
Director: Paul Feig