I’ve always wondered if comedy director Paul Feig has ever dreamt of moving away from comedies. With A Simple Favor, Feig has not only considered it, he did it, finally making a non-comedy that's really a black comedy. Feig, along with Jessica Sharzer (who served as screenwriter), helped adapt the Darcey Bell novel of the same name into one of 2018’s more interesting entries. They brought along actors Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding, and together they weave a tale of deception and intrigue that’s at times a parody and at other times is almost synonymous with a Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) title.

A Simple Favor belies its title and is a little complicated – an anxious widowed mother, Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick), befriends Emily Nelson (Lively), a rich and mysterious mother with plenty of skeletons in her closet. One day Emily disappears and Stephanie, along with Emily’s husband Sean Townsend (Golding), sets out to find her only friend. Stephanie’s efforts reveal more than she anticipated, and Stephanie is forced out of her comfort zone while her moral code stretches farther than Hurricane Florence’s projected path.

I didn’t know what to think of Feig’s latest after screening it. On one hand, I can applaud the tonal shift. Feig looks comfortable directing thrillers, although he included enough humor to escape blame if it fails as one. Regardless, Feig was able to create a surreal world of bright colors, dark themes, dry humor and cruel intentions. His best move, though, was allowing Kendrick and Lively to do their thing – they played complex, emotional women who are willing to push the envelope in regards to their lives and the lives of those around them.

Favor’s strength lies in its setup – Stephanie and Emily are polar opposites, the likes of which provide memorable exchanges whenever they’re together. While their young sons frolic during their play dates, Stephanie and Emily share cocktails and pasts which are expected for one but surprising for the other. Their relationship is depicted with excellent chemistry – you can tell Kendrick and Lively are a close and lively pair on and off screen. Their chemistry proves Lively has matured as an actress. I believed she wasn’t capable of being more than tabloid fodder and a pretty face married to another pretty face (is Lively Mrs. Deadpool, or is Ryan Reynolds Mr. Lively?). But she gives a slick performance, playing everything I think a woman would want to be – intelligent, powerful, beautiful, rich and more than willing to say and do whatever she wants.

The true gem is Kendrick who, like Feig, must’ve been aching to branch out. Kendrick, whose past work is more in line with the teen/young adult set, has begun her transition into more mature material. Favor, with its comedic elements, is a perfect vehicle to do that without jumping in feet first. Stephanie begins as naïve, prim and proper – living secretly with grief and guilt while placing her son and his needs above herself. Stephanie is enthralled with Emily (and surprisingly, Emily with Stephanie) and for once the single mother can imagine satisfying her own wants needs. Stephanie’s story arc is the most complete and we can thank Kendrick for successfully transforming from girl to woman, artistically and in the meta sense.

On the other hand, with a running time of 117 minutes, the third act has a plethora of problems. There are enough twists and turns to make a winding road seem straight, and what’s worse is the conclusion is unsatisfactory, muddled and rushed. It’s lazy enough to unravel the exceptional first two acts and messy enough to belong in a B-movie. A Simple Favor is likeable, but the final product raises the idea Feig wanted to make a thriller by mocking it.

3 stars out of 5

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