Let me tell you, A Simple Favor would have Jessica Fletcher scratching her head. But that’s okay, because supermom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is on the case instead, and she’ll be sure to tell you just how she did it on her supermom “how to do it” vlog – that is, right after she reveals how much butter goes into a zucchini chocolate chip cookie. And that’s okay too, because watching it, I had no idea how she did it. But then again, I didn’t know there were zucchini chocolate chip cookies, either.
Paul Feig’s not-so-thrilling thriller based on Darcey Bell’s novel from last year revolves around the peppy widow Stephanie and alcoholic fashion publicist Emily (Blake Lively), two opposites in a small Connecticut town, who get caught up in this sort-of-noir, sort-of-funny mystery that ends up playing more like a joke than a joker. This is no Gone Girl, but you can certainly tell which girl was supposed to play the gone role.
Stephanie and Emily’s friendship is founded atop the stiff martinis they drink during their children’s play dates and the secrets those martinis draw out. But one day, while Stephanie’s watching the kids – the titular favor – Emily goes missing, her sudden work trip turning into a missing-person case. The authorities and the town’s pick-a-little, talk-a-little parents quickly point towards Sean (Henry Golding), Emily’s husband, as a suspect, though he insists upon returning home that he knows nothing of the disappearance. His unpredictable wife, he says, does this sort of thing.
Stephanie doesn’t understand that, as she’ll later tell authorities, Sean and her rapidly growing online audience. But as she tears up discussing the case during a live video, she calls Emily her “best friend.” It’s an eyebrow-raising moment, to say the least. But it’s also the first of many instances in which the film mishandles time.
Though Stephanie doesn’t get along with most of the community’s other parents – in supporting roles that don’t nearly get enough screen time, Andrew Rannells and Aparna Nancherla play a mom and a dad who gossip from afar – and the only person who seems to listen to her is her son, Emily’s not exactly nice to Stephanie. There’s one nickname she constantly uses for her which is particularly potent, one which not only stabs fun at her, but one that takes away from the only trusting moment in the film the two share.
Being a widow, the same idea applies to her relationship with Sean, who she moves in with mere days after Emily’s out of the picture. The relationships in the film are built entirely by default. Surely someone’s going to be someone else’s best friend if they’re her only friend. But that’s not the kind of friendship on which to base a good story. A Simple Favor suffers because it does just that. As we watch Kendrick come home from a day of investigating only to slip into bed with her subject’s husband, both sides of her character take a hit.
The lack of chemistry between Kendrick – whose chirpy persona perfectly fits the over-the-top motherly role – and Golding – who in Crazy Rich Asians showed that he could take the backseat to a story led by two females – doesn’t help matters, either.
Feig, who’s been known to conjure up categorical spoofs (Spy, Bridesmaids), throws up Fincher-like curveballs, each one more disturbing than the last, only to strike out in the ninth. But in a second half where these revelations pop up like mushrooms, its dramatic impact takes a turn towards self-parody. Most of the laughs I had watching A Simple Favor were directed at its absurdity. If there was a joke, I missed it. And if there was suspense, well, I guess I missed that, too.
Given the reckless number of twists and turns tossed into the plot, it's no surprise that A Simple Favor gets lost so deep in its maze that only bloodhounds can get it out.