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'A Simple Favor' spins a fascinating web of intrigue

Phil on Film: 'A Simple Favor'
Posted at 10:44 PM, Sep 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-14 11:15:43-04

"A Simple Favor" is a wily and confounding Moms Gone Wild thriller about a charismatic, enigmatic woman and an outsider lured into her twisted realm.

Blake Lively smolders in the role she has been training for since her "Gossip Girl" days as Emily, the alluringly aloof, effortlessly conniving, high-powered PR pro who turns up her nose at her seemingly perfect life. Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, the awkward, overly polite helicopter mom and vlogger who is giddy at the opportunity to become Emily's friend. 

Emily longs to be worshipped, and Stephanie is all too eager to do the worshipping. The expert manipulator and the willing manipulated form a fast, symbiotic relationship that quickly takes on a master and servant dynamic. But there is also a psychological game of one-upsmanship at play, with the women subtly working to wrestle for control.

Adapted from Darcey Bell's 2017 novel, director Paul Feig's film plays with the power dynamics and layers of the relationship between the two women. Once Emily goes missing, the plot really slams on the gas, with Stephanie teaming up with Sean (Henry Golding), Emily's husband, to suss out the whereabouts of the enigmatic woman who can make either do anything she likes with a bat of her eyelash extensions.

Feig -- stepping out of his comedy comfort zone to try his hand at drama -- and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer fall into the trap of trying to capture every twist and turn of the source material, and a few red herring plot threads add little to the narrative. Paring down the story to its bare essence would have made for a tighter, more cohesive mystery.

One of the most effective storytelling devices come when Stephanie takes to YouTube, showing off her adorkable crafting skills while telling the ongoing story of the search for Emily, enlisting her audience to hunt for clues and provide support. She also lets slip an affinity she's developing for Sean, which only adds to the intrigue surrounding her as she sinks more deeply into the fray.

Even without much of a story, though, the smoldering, nuanced and ever-shifting interplay between Lively and Kendrick would keep things gripping. Both are accomplished actresses just starting to hit their peak, and the roles they find in this film mark compelling new frontiers for them to conquer. 

Coursing through the film is a wickedly unpredictable intellect that toys with the viewers, daring them to leap to conclusions that they'll feel smart to piece together, only to tear down those notions with ruthless vigor.

If a top-notch mystery bolstered by top-level performances intrigues you, do yourself the simple favor of seeing this sooner rather than later.

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.

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