It’s immediately apparent that the two moms could not be more different. Emily lives in a spare and modern home, paid for by her high-powered PR job. Stephanie loves Target and is supporting herself and her son on her husband’s life insurance. However, Emily’s elegant-at-a-distance life is actually scraping the bottom of the financial barrel, and for all of her household amenities and eye-popping fashion, she refuses to let herself be photographed. Stephanie’s carefully-curated image as the perfect mom and homemaker is also hiding some dark family history. The two women, both lonely despite appearances, become friends, so when Emily suddenly disappears, Stephanie is the one who seems most interested in finding her, moreso even than her one-hit wonder novelist husband Sean (Henry Golding). At the same time, because this is a pulpy and melodramatic farce that contains no small amount of lifestyle porn, Stephanie wonders what would happen if she just moved in to Emily’s home, to help out Sean and the kids in this trying time, of course, and certainly not to try on her outfits and cook in her sparkling kitchen and make eyes at her gorgeous spouse.
As the person of interest, Lively makes Emily worthy of investigation. By far the highlight of her career, the role should forever banish the prospect of wasting Lively in the badlands of bland supportive wife or girlfriend. A Simple Favor asks a lot of her, alternating between bombshell and seductress and other forms later in the film, but always maintaining an air of danger and unpredictability. A part of her success is the wacky costuming, not because of her extravagance but because of how she can seemingly pull off any combination of men’s and women’s clothes, but the swagger is all Lively. She makes Emily capable of anything, including the possibility that all her confidence is a front for a long-buried vulnerability that Stephanie’s earnestness awakens, unless that too is one more ploy.
Opposite Lively, Kendrick is no slouch. She plays into her persona in the same way that Anne Hathaway did in Ocean’s 8, both embellishing it and subverting it at the same time. For Hathaway, that meant playing a bubble-headed brat of a starlet, while for Kendrick, it’s a goody-two-shoes, a person whose suffocating kindness and studied perfection is read as accusatory by people who aren’t measuring up to her standard. Stephanie is a try-hard in the purest definition of the phrase, and Kendrick keeps her sympathetic by placing those traits within a desperation for companionship, like her genuine plan to win friends is by baking the perfect cookie. It’s a calculated performance down to the tiny tics and spins that Kendrick is putting on her reactions, like she’s at war with what she’s thinking and what’s she’s doing and the battle lines are drawn at the corners of her eyes and her mouth. It’s no surprise that her backstory is as wild as anything in a wild film, as no one so performatively put-together as her would have a closet free of skeletons.
With the lead actors, along with Linda Cardellini and Andrew Rannells in smaller roles, having such a blast with the material, their enthusiasm makes A Simple Favor an easy film to be charmed by. Feig even cuts back on his habit of location establishing shots that look better suited to commercials. The sum total doesn’t necessarily add up to more than appearances being deceiving, a recurring theme in movies as they’ve been made about the suburbs, but who cares if the destination has been repeatedly visited when it’s so much fun getting there. B+