A Simple Favor surgically slices into a subject that’s ripe and ready for satire: The modern mommy. It builds a labyrinthine murder mystery within the suburban topography of playdates and school projects. Unfortunately the plot careens wildly through some dark terrain and forces the audience to endure jarring and incongruous shifts in tone. Strong performances and sharp, acerbic dialogue make it unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t pick a genre and stick with it.
The two leads play different sides of the maternal coin. Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie is the buzzing, hovering mom-drone who dotes on her only child to the point of distraction. She posts parenting tips and quirky cooking ideas—Zucchini cookies sound frickin’ gross, by the way—on a regular vlog. Her character is perky yet prudish—she fills a swear jar and blurts “oopsy” when someone uses profanity. Emily (Blake Lively) is a sailor-mouthed, gin-swilling counterpart, her own life ensconced in antiseptic, upper class misery. She loves her son, provided he doesn’t interfere with her fashion career or hamstring a good martini buzz. These women form a strange, oil-and-water friendship—Stephanie’s cheerfully humdrum existence is knocked off kilter by Emily’s narcissistic nihilism, and Emily gains a drinking buddy and free babysitter who is too nice and naïve to say no.
The movie supplies a novel twist when Emily dumps her son with Stephanie and vanishes into the ether. Stephanie tearfully announces on her vlog that she will do her own investigating. She keeps her growing base of followers updated as she dredges up unsavory details about her best friend and forms an awkwardly quick bond with Emily’s husband (Henry Golding, who appeared in the recent Crazy Rich Asians, and once again does a great job playing a nice dude who might also be kind of a dick).
At this point, the movie ventures into the murky noir of Gone Girl and Double Indemnity. The story alternates between Stephanie’s sunny detective work and the depressing origins of Emily’s fucked up femme fatale. Intricate plot details are stacked Jenga-style, until the whole thing topples in the goofy final act. And by adding a shady, unbelievable twist to Stephanie’s past, the filmmakers needlessly muddy up her motivation. Is she trying to catch the bad guys ‘cause it’s the right thing to do, or does she enjoy the fame and followers it gains her? If the latter is the case, it makes her guileless charm feel plastic and her character much harder to root for.
If A Simple Favor misses the bullseye, it hits a few peripheral targets. Lively imbues her snarky dialogue with detached sarcasm, and few actors can be adorably dorky (adorkable?) like Kendrick. And setting a convoluted mystery amidst a group of harried soccer parents is a wicked idea that begs for the proper treatment. If its makers had embraced the inherent silliness of the story and fleshed it out into full-blown satire, A Simple Favor could have been something great.