Movie Review: “A Simple Favor”

I was with it, until I wasn’t.

At its best, “A Simple Favor,” a pop mystery directed by comedy auteur Paul Feig, is as compulsively watchable as binge-y television—the wheelhouse of juicy suburban scandal ever since ABC introduced us to Wisteria Lane. But when Feig’s film crosses the line from charming eccentricity to exasperating convolution, it jumps a shark that’s so tired and full that it doesn’t even bother to bite.

It’s set in Connecticut, where Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a friendless, widowed mother and supermom volunteer at her elementary school, lives off her late husband’s insurance policy and runs a middling mommy vlog. But her online viewership is soon to change, as healthy lunch recipes begin to yield their screen time to amateur sleuthing.

Stephanie’s new best friend, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a self-possessed and impolitic Type A businesswoman who is also, possibly, an alcoholic and a psychopath, has vanished after asking Stephanie to pick up her son from school. Emily’s husband, Sean (Henry Golding), appears nonplussed: This isn’t the first time his flighty wife has desired an escape, but as the days tick away, Emily’s disappearance seems momentous. And when a body is found at the bottom of a local lake, it prompts more questions than answers. Stephanie, her vlog audience mushrooming by the day, will go to extreme lengths to answer them.

To a point, moviegoers nostalgic for the glossy thrillers of the ‘50s and ‘60s will find surface enjoyment in Feig’s retro approach, initially evident from the Saul Bass-style title sequence that opens the movie. The colors pop with the painterly precision of adventurous follies like “Charade,” with a vintage-style musical score throwing us back aurally as well as visually. Every now and then, the faint echo of a masterpiece like “Vertigo” makes itself heard in the spindly skeleton of this tabloid-y plot, adapted from the 2017 book of the same name by Darcey Bell.

But classic-cinema references can only go so far. For Feig, it appears to be one of the film’s many scattershot affectations, alongside its frothy bisexual subtext, its liberal use of unreliable narrators, and its flashbacks-within-flashbacks metaphysics—all of which provide excuses for this stylized story to drift so far from recognizable human behavior that its revelations become as inconsequential as a cheap soap opera plot (“You mean she isn’t really dead!? Dum dum duuuuuuum!…”)

Kendrick and Lively gamely do what they do best—the former dancing on the delicate tightrope of awkward and adorable, the latter cornering the market on steely, glamorous cunning—but neither can inject much soul into the artifice of “A Simple Favor.”

Comparisons to “Gone Girl” were inevitable when Bell’s book came out, and they’re sure to resurface here, too. But it least that thriller, while ultimately risible, approached its plot with a modicum of intrigue. In Feig’s treatment of “A Simple Favor,” everything is ironic, everything is in quotations, everybody’s too clever by half. We can marvel so much at the craft when the movie itself doesn’t believe its own B.S.

“A Simple Favor” is now playing at most area theaters.