By Andrea Thompson
“A Simple Favor” is basically “Gone Girl” with a sense of humor. Soon after Gillian Flynn’s book burst onto the scene, practically all of pop culture tried to recreate it, and almost every attempt failed, mostly due to the fact that they all tried to build the same sense of mystery without Flynn’s keen insight into how such mysteries came to be in the first place.
Director Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” does something less complicated, yet in its way, more daring. Rather that trying to recreate its obvious inspirations, it looks them squarely in the eye and asks, “Why so serious?” Even better, it has Anna Kendrick to sell its premise as the widowed housewife Stephanie. In Kendrick’s hands, the chipper perfectionist homemaker, a volunteering overachiever, is equal parts quirky, naive, and far smarter and darker than others would believe. But then, there’s a reason Kendrick’s memoir is called “Scrappy Little Nobody.” This movie demands all the scrappiness she’s capable of, and the fact that you stick with it is due to her capacity for it. Stephanie is just as believable as an isolated perfectionist as she is a surprisingly capable amateur sleuth.
The other reason to stick around is another, completely different brand of womanhood on display, which Blake Lively happily provides as stylish career woman Lulu, an icy blonde who eschews every rule of good parenting. She curses around her son, berates her husband, and is unapologetically sexual. Such women tend to fascinate, and Stephanie’s loneliness soon means she is especially vulnerable to her attentions. It isn’t long before Lulu wraps Stephanie around her beautifully manicured finger, with Stephanie providing free babysitting and running errands for Lulu.
But one day, Lulu once again asks Stephanie to babysit her son, then disappears, with Stephanie surprisingly reaping the benefits. She gains even more views on her mommy blog, which she uses to aid in the search, wins over many of the other parents who are genuinely touched by her devotion, and is able to use her cooking and parenting skills to help Lulu’s very appreciative husband Sean (Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians.” When Lulu is found dead, Stephanie soon moves in to her supposedly deceased friend’s beautifully stylish modern home, only to wonder not only if new beau had something to do with Lulu’s death, but whether that death ever occurred in the first place.
It isn’t exactly deep stuff, but that’s because “A Simple Favor” clearly believes its audience will enjoy wading more than diving. It also sometimes makes for a rather confusing experience. A story like this inevitably brings up issues of gender and how women use the expectations around it to their advantage, but since “A Simple Favor” refuses to delve into them, it’s sometimes unclear just what kind of movie it wants to be. But when you have such a light, fun script delivered to perfection by someone as winning as Kendrick, with fun references to “The Canterbury Tales” and “Les Diaboliques,” who cares? Its audience certainly won’t, and that might not be a completely terrible thing.