“A Simple Favor,” the latest offering from “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig, is a perky smart aleck of a movie. It tries your patience by trying to milk frequently inappropriate laughs from taboo subject matter, but it knows how to show you a good time. Even when it doesn't know when to shut up. I kinda dug it, whenever I didn't want to wring its neck.
First things first, though. Lionsgate, the studio releasing this naughty puppy dolled up in chick flick couture, is peddling this as a thriller, ostensibly giving audiences a glimpse into Feig's dark side. A cheekier “Gone Girl,” if you will. That's a whole bunch of baloney. After trying his hand at a big-budget tentpole, and falling flat on his face, with his 2016 “Ghostbusters” remake, “Favor” shows the TV actor turned big-time filmmaker getting his mojo back by taking on a more modestly scaled project, with considerably stronger results. He's out to bring the funny, and he does.
True, the movie, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, has all the elements of a psychosexual thiller: envy, lust, betrayal, revenge and a body count. But rather than the thriller with a comic edge it's being sold as by the studio, “Favor” is something simpler: an impish comedy that wants to poke fun at everything in sight, including but not limited to the thriller genre. It takes the ingredients of, say, a Claude Chabrol potboiler, and takes out a magic marker to put smiley faces all over the place. Hitchcockian? Try Hitch ultra-lite. It wouldn't be a stretch to visualize the Master of Suspense sitting back with a bucket of popcorn and being tickled pink by the girlfight on display.
Girlfight? Oops. I meant friendship, because even in the suburban purgatory where the bulk of “Favor” unfolds, people have been known to show kindness. Like the all-too-accurately named Stephanie Smothers. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is all smiles and community spirit. She's the kind of single mom who volunteers at every school event, offering help even when it's not needed or wanted. Leaving school one rainy afternoon, her son Miles (Joshua Satine) begs her for a play date with his best friend Nicky (Ian Ho). But what does Nicky's mom think?
Cue the slo-mo entrance. Emily Nelson gets out of her luxury sedan, impeccably dressed in a stylish, gender-bending business outfit. Her pumps clacking on the wet pavement, she walks with such purpose that it's almost as if she had ordered the rain to fall just to make her look even more alluring. Stephanie, a mommy vlogger who has been struggling to make ends meet since her husband's untimely passing, is transfixed by this noirish apparition, and so are we. Perhaps the best casting decision Feig made here was to hire Blake Lively to play Emily. Channeling Sharon Stone circa “Basic Instinct,” she strikes an ideal balance between enigmatic and brutally honest, with comic chops to match. The sexual energy the actress brings to the role is precisely the shot in the arm the movie needs.
And “A Simple Favor” is at its strongest when it focuses on the two women's bond, particularly when they coax deeply held secrets out of each other. Jessica Sharzer's screenplay, at once razor-sharp and easygoing, is the real star during the film's first hour, as Stephanie and Emily get to know one another and the filmmakers turn Emily's English husband, Sean (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Henry Golding), into their punching bag. A one-hit-wonder literary sensation reduced to teaching grammar at a small college, Sean is the personification male fallibility. Feig and Sharzer see right through him, and they invite us to point at him and snicker.
The film remains an engaging affair after Emily vanishes without a trace, but something is lost whenever Kendrick and Lively are apart. And yet there's an indefatigable charm to Feig's direction that keeps things upbeat, even when the story starts taking some very dark turns. The revelations are not exactly surprising. Emily, we find out, is not who she says she is, even though her ruthless workplace ethic as the PR problem fixer for a fashion designer named, I kid you not, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend, tongue placed firmly in cheek) totally checks out.
But there are layers to the plot's onion-skin structure that need to be unearthed, which eventually makes “A Simple Favor” play like a cross between a Lifetime movie and a Skinemax flick, only with punch lines. As the twists and complications pile up, it becomes clear Feig is far less adept at generating suspense than teasing the genre's conventions. He gives it the old college try, though, and keeps his game cast sharp as a tack, even when the bulky narrative starts weighing the movie down. (When a character says at one point that there are “too many loose ends,” she's not kidding.) The double crosses and gotcha moments grow wearisome, but the stars stay on point.
Make no mistake, though. “A Simple Favor” works, not because Feig is branching out, but because he's able to mold the source material into the kind of girls-night-out multiplex fodder that he's known for. He's staying put in his comfort zone, and when the results are this playful and easily digestible, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
“A Simple Favor” is now playing in wide release in theaters in Miami-Dade and Broward County.