The question around which A Simple Favor spins out isn't so much, Where is Emily? as, Who is Emily? Paul Feig's poppy noir thriller centers on the subtly named Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a helicopter single parent and mommy blogger who becomes unlikely best friends with the preschool's most glamorous working mom, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). When Emily asks Stephanie to drive her son home from school -- the eponymous favor -- only to vanish without a trace, Stephanie sets out to sleuth out where that girl's gone.
That's the sort of ingenious part of the premise: A mommy vlog becomes the latest true crime sensation after the sudden disappearance of a fellow PTA member. And I've not ready Darcey Bell's novel from which the movie was adapted (by screenwriter Jessica Sharzer) but that isn't what we're given here, never chomping onto that bone of satirizing the e-mommy generation or our devouring of true crime.
A Simple Favor is ostensibly Gone Girl, though neither as smart nor sleek as David Fincher's take on secrets in the suburbs. As it unwinds, there's so much thrown at the wall -- doppelgangers and incest, unfaithful husbands (played by Crazy Rich Asian's endlessly watchable Henry Golding) and murder -- that A Simple Favor becomes convoluted, crazed. There are good pieces, but the puzzle never comes together. Too many plot yarns prove red herrings or ultimately beside the point -- including and especially the exceedingly bizarre incest subplot, which eats up a not insignificant amount of screen time -- and when the movie stop to explain everything to you in the third act, even it still can't fully make sense of itself.
Feig's forte, as showcased in superb works like Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters and Spy, is teeing up a scene and letting his actors devour it with endless improv. In a movie as plot-heavy as this, though, all that bantering drains some of the thrust from the mystery. Which is fine, because the scenes between Kendrick (characteristically chipper though perhaps still a little too sharp to totally buy as the mommy rube) and Lively, lounging in Emily's shiny contemporary kitchen, just talking, are the highlight, the ladies tapping into a rat-a-tat groove as Stephanie and Emily swap secret over dirty martinis.
But then there's that nagging question again: Who is Emily?
"Have you figured me out already?" Emily purrs late in the movie.
"You're impossible to figure out..." her husband (Golding) replies.
"Thank you," she says.
Except we never do figure her out, not really. Nutty revelations abound, but you do not leave A Simple Favor with any sense of who Emily truly is. Still, it's a blast watching Lively tear into her, laying Emily's f**k this attitude on thick at the onset (her office voice mail message is, "Leave a message or go f**k yourself") and, impressively enough, sells it, before unmasking any number of other sides of herself: Unflappable, droll, intimidating, beguiling, someone who can pull off a tuxedo in the daytime. Lively has been forging such an interesting path towards movie stardom -- post-Gossip Girl, bouncing from the swoony The Age of Adaline to shark attack thriller The Shallows to the moody art house indie, All I See Is You -- that it's easy to excuse an only so-so Blake Lively vehicle (like this) when she delivers on being so good in it.
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