By the third act of Paul Feig’s remarkably campy “A Simple Favor,” the cliches have piled up at such an alarming rate that it may prove best for audiences to start taking notes, just to keep track. There’s the haunted mansion, the boozed-out matriarch, the creepy religious summer camp, incest, a remarkable closet, a whole mess of drugs, blackmail, something about an abusive father, and those are just the bits that can be mentioned without unraveling the bigger pieces of a convoluted story that never rests.
However, such note-taking would amount to the most thinking the film will require of its audience, a late-season entry into the race of summer’s biggest “guilty pleasure,” a film that is both very entertaining and exceedingly stupid. No surprise here: The final moments all but scream, “Greenlight the sequel!”
And perhaps they should, because for all its bonkers plotting and knee-slapping line delivery, “A Simple Favor” is compulsively watchable, a downmarket spin on “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” that is enthralling mostly because it’s never clear what the hell is going to happen next. Even fans of Darcey Bell’s pulpy bestseller, adapted by Jessica Sharzer, will likely be left aghast by some late-act plotting that spin the film off into still-nuttier territory.
Feig’s first act is relatively tame compared to what unfolds in the film’s rollercoaster final hour, though early touches hint at some of the madness to come. For starters, the film’s lead actresses are game from the get-go, a characteristic that will serve them well when everything starts going so gleefully off the rails. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mommy vlogger who approaches everything, from her daily videos about recipes and crafts to her volunteer duties at her son’s school, with a gusto that borders on mania. The other parents, including a standout Andrew Rannells, mock her, and her social life appears to be nonexistent.
It’s no surprise that when the glamorous Emily (Blake Lively) deigns to show up at elementary school to pick up her own tot, best friends with Stephanie’s kid, her arrival is played for both laughs and gasps. Dressed like a sexy Monopoly man — amazing tailored suits, kicky accessories, the occasional cane — Emily sweeps into a suburban parking lot and upends everything, especially Stephanie. Though it’s never clear how long the pair have actually known each other — among its many faults, “A Simple Favor” has a baffling handle on the passage of time — but once she sets her sights on the perky vlogger, Stephanie is toast.
Soon, they’re best pals, a friendship literally eased along by boozy afternoons and Emily’s uncanny ability to get people like Stephanie to spill their guts to her. For Emily, it’s likely based on some kind of convenience, because no one is as reliable as Stephanie, and Emily needs that kind of stability, even if it’s only used to ensure that someone is around to pick her kid up from school. That’s the simple favor of the film’s title, and though Stephanie is happy to watch Emily’s son, things get weird after Emily fails to show for a pickup. Bits of info abound: she’s in Miami for work, her husband Sean (“Crazy Rich Asians” breakout Henry Golding) is in London with an emergency, she’s done this before, she’ll do it again, that’s just Emily for you.
But this time is different, and when Emily doesn’t come back and is — gasp — found dead (no, really, we’re still in the first act here and this is somehow not a spoiler), Stephanie’s life takes even more crazy turns. Feig uses Stephanie’s daily vlogs as a smart way to get to know her and her crumbling mental state, and a screen-filling, no-nonsense design encourages the audience to root around for extra information, from her climbing follower numbers to the comments people fire off.
Stephanie soon becomes convinced that Emily isn’t actually dead, and who can blame her? Not only does Emily’s son swear he’s seen his mommy loitering around, but she’s started calling Stephanie up on the phone at odd hours, all the better to roast her BFF with long-held secrets (and take her to task for her growing relationship with Sean). Feig isn’t interested in plumbing the depths of Stephanie’s psychology, instead offering it up plain-faced: she’s not nuts, but everyone else involved in this story probably is.
What’s actually going on with Emily (and, by extension, Stephanie) is more complex than an entire season of a soap opera, and the twists and turns that unfold over the course of the film run the gamut from compelling to insulting. Kendrick never misses a step, though, and when Lively is introduced back into the fold, her cool-girl persona has an alluring added edge. Keeping up with the plot becomes a matter of pure will, but Stephanie and Emily zing from one shocker to another, so fully invested that it’s impossible not to admire their range, even as you’re laughing at some of the lines they’re forced to toss off and narrative change-ups they are expected to sell.
No one will see the final twists coming, if only because Feig goes for the spaghetti method of storytelling: Throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall and something has got to stick. Only some does, but the good stuff — the really campy, trashy, nutty stuff — is the kind of thing popcorn cinema hasn’t so happily embraced in years. None of it’s that complicated, really, but sometimes, simple pleasures are the best.
Lionsgate will release “A Simple Favor” on Friday, September 14.