In the sharp-elbowed arena of competitive mommying, no one is safe, an idea that A Simple Favor examines over arched eyebrows and mixed drinks, with mostly amusing results.
Paul Feig's mischievous thriller stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie, a widow and single mother who's turned all of her considerable energy into hyper-parenting (her last name is Smothers). At school, a teacher warns her away from the volunteer board, begging her to give others a chance to prepare gluten-free snacks and meatless meatballs. In the margins, a Greek chorus of snarky parents make fun of her striving, but we are on Stephanie's side, because it is Kendrick's gift (shared with Reese Witherspoon) to make these pert perfectionists somehow likable.
In her hands, Stephanie becomes a sympathetic portrait of a vulnerable woman hiding behind a facade of manufactured self-confidence — never more apparent than when she's hosting her virtually unwatched mommy vlog (the movie would make an interesting double feature with Eighth Grade).
Stephanie's life is upended when a play-date initiates an opposites-attract friendship with the school's most iconoclastic mother. Emily (Blake Lively) is a stylish woman who works a glamorous job in the city, who has mysterious tattoos, $500 shoes, and drinks sub-zero gin martinis in the afternoon while banishing the children to the other room while encouraging confessional conversation about sex.
Lively and Kendrick have good chemistry, and the differences between their characters (maternal/sexual, passive/assertive) are cleverly and not too broadly drawn by writers Jessica Sharzer and Darcey Bell. Even the wardrobe (one doubts that Kendrick will keep her outfits) and production design get laughs (sensible Stephanie drives a Subaru, Emily a Porsche).
They become fast friends, but while the kids play in the park and Stephanie tries to snap Emily's picture for her vlog, Emily reacts angrily and demands the picture be erased. What is she hiding? Here, the movie suggests the women understand each other because in important ways they are alike — presenting a carefully constructed image to the public, one that obscures an unscrubbed reality.
All of this comes to a head when (not a spoiler) Emily disappears. When she does, so does much of the Lively/Kendrick interplay that makes the movie so much fun. The overlong second half gets lost in plot mechanics that are less interesting than the character dynamics, and in some cases conflict with what we know of the women (there is the sense that the story, adapted from Bell's novel, has been toned down for the big screen).
Still, it's fun to see Stephanie turn her mommy skills ("I'm a problem solver") to detective work, as the mystery of Emily's disappearance becomes entwined in her own fate (she starts spending a lot time with her friend's handsome husband, played by Crazy Rich Asian's Henry Golding).
Kendrick gets to show off her comic versatility (equally good with a quirky line reading, or getting slapstick laughs stuck in a cocktail dress) and there is ample room for funny supporting roles — Linda Cardellini as an artist who knew Emily when, and Bashir Salahuddin as the local police detective.
And there's something to be said for the movie's heavy pour of mommy noir — a jigger of Bombeck, a dash of Highsmith. It's a cocktail with a kick.