At first glance, Paul Feig doesn’t seem like the right choice to direct a stylish mystery thriller. But the man behind crowd-pleasing comedies including Bridesmaids, Spy and The Heat turns out to be the perfect person to ensure that the adaptation of Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel A Simple Favor doesn’t just come off as another second-rate version of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. Feig brings a welcome sense of humor to the story of high-strung single mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and her increasingly obsessive efforts to solve the disappearance of her mysterious friend Emily (Blake Lively).
In the upscale Connecticut suburbs of New York City, the widowed Stephanie is the over-involved parent that all the other moms and dads at her son’s school can’t stand, and she forms an unlikely bond with the poised, aloof Emily when their sons become friends. Emily lives in an impeccable ultra-modern mansion, drinks martinis in the afternoon, wears glamorous outfits that look like they’ve just come from a fashion runway, swears constantly, and is married to handsome, charming novelist and college professor Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding). In short, she’s everything that Stephanie is not, and Stephanie clearly idolizes her, while also fearing her and possibly lusting after her a little bit.
They haven’t been friends for long when Emily calls Stephanie one day and asks Stephanie to take care of Emily’s son after school. And then Emily just doesn’t come back, setting off a search for her that eventually encompasses many, many twists, secrets, betrayals, and other expected elements of the genre. The plotting in Favor is mostly sturdy but not strikingly original, and Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer seem to be aware that they are merely putting a spin on a familiar template.
The characters themselves reference classic thrillers Diabolique and Gaslight, and there are echoes of movies like Double Indemnity and Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, in addition to the more recent Girl sensations. But Favor is also consistently, unexpectedly funny, with Kendrick making Stephanie into a delightful combination of awkward and devious. Lively gives one of her best and, er, liveliest performances as the diabolical yet alluring Emily, and she and Kendrick have such fantastic chemistry that it’s almost a shame that Emily has to go missing to set the plot in motion, depriving the audience of their playful dynamic for most of the movie.
Feig packs the soundtrack with sinuous French pop songs, and the costume design (by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus) and production design (by Jefferson Sage) are similarly sensual and inviting. This is a film noir full of bright colors, with most of the action taking place in the friendly suburban daylight. Stephanie is a dedicated mommy vlogger, and her chipper online videos about recipes (and also her friend’s disappearance) exemplify the movie’s mix of sunny comedy and dark thrills.
Like most recent movies in this genre, Favor throws out a few too many twists as it barrels toward its conclusion, and Lively has an interminable exposition-dump scene toward the end that’s only salvaged by the amazing, gravity-defying outfit she’s wearing. Still, the performances are so enjoyable and the sense of humor so appealing that it’s hard to get too frustrated at the groan-worthy turns of the plot. Feig has taken a detour into an unexpected genre and proved that it was right in his wheelhouse all along.