Blake Lively in A Simple Favor (Photo: Lionsgate)

★★★ (out of four)
STARS Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively

Far from a cookie-cutter comedy that rolled straight off the Hollywood assembly line, A Simple Favor is basically Gone Girl if it had been played for laughs instead of thrills. Yet even that description doesn’t hint at the dark depths occasionally found in an invigorating effort that doesn’t quite maintain its high-wire act yet deftly avoids a fall and a splat.

Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a widowed single mom who operates a cooking vlog. Her online videos already maintain a solid following, but they become even more popular once she uses it to relate the sordid tale of how her newly acquired best friend, the confidant and no-nonsense Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), suddenly goes missing. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding, currently enjoying great success as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians) claims not to know the whereabouts of his wife, a stance also taken by her boss, fashion designer Dennis Nylon (a funny Rupert Friend). Concerned about Emily, Stephanie opts to do a little sleuthing on her own – an unwise decision since it brings such unpleasantries as incest, adultery and murder floating to the surface.

Directed by hitmaker Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) and written by Jessica Sharzer (working from Darcey Bell’s novel), A Simple Favor is outstanding for about an hour, thanks to its unexpectedly dark themes, its mordant humor, and a knockout performance by Lively. But if the first half is mostly about the characters, the second part is chiefly about the mystery, and the movie isn’t quite as compelling as it works through its convoluted plot (some of which relies on happenstance) and employs dramatic devices that were already growing hoary back in the 1940s. Still, as a robust way for viewers to welcome the fall film season, A Simple Favor easily gets the job done.


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