It's extremely rare in this day and age to walk into a movie cold: to not really know anything about a movie other than who's in it, and just let it take you to someplace unexpected. A Simple Favor, a cryptic comic thriller from Paul Feig, is that kind of treat.
Adapted from Darcey Bell's pulpy page-turner, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sherzer (American Horror Story) give it a razor-sharp wit. It's not quite the vicious satire of American institutions like Gone Girl, but it's a lot sunnier than the ugly-side-of-upstate New York seen in The Girl on the Train. Still, it shares a lot of DNA with those thrillers: a missing blonde, a shitty husband and lots of rumors among the bored housewives of the neighborhood bubble.
Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed mommy blogger who's always signing up for more than her fair share of PTA activities and apologizing for any perceived social gaffe. But her life gets a jolt when she meets Emily, a PR exec with a serious drinking problem and zero cares. After their friendship blossoms over too many afternoon martinis, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son after school, but then disappears.
To say anything more would be to give away the film's many delicious twists. But what keeps it from just being a candy-colored take on a dark beach read is how it continually shifts our expectations about who these characters are. What seems like extreme character turns are enforced by flashbacks to scenes we didn't see yet, revealing there's a lot more going on than what we see on the surface.
A good stretch of the film is just Stephanie playing amateur sleuth, walking naively into dangerous situations out of a hunger for information on the woman she thought she knew. We've seen plenty of these would-be Philip Marlowes in everything from Brick to Zodiac to Inherent Vice this century, but it's nice to see Anna Kendrick shed her prim-and-proper exterior to lie her way into people's homes and businesses, scrounging for clues.
But the real revelation here is Blake Lively. This is far and away the best performance she's ever given, playing a femme fatale who chooses bespoke suits instead of low-cut dresses. She makes it easy to understand why both men and women would be so transfixed by her, but also makes the crazy secrets she's hiding feel believable.
A Simple Favor is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Trying to learn any more about it could ruin that surprise. Don't ask any more questions. Just go.