Stripping away the polished veneer of suburbia to find dark and disturbing secrets has attracted filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock (“Shadow of a Doubt”) to David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”) and Gus Van Sant (“To Die For”). But suburban noir is now a staple of bestseller lists, thanks largely to Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” who in turn owe a debt to the twisted tales forged by grand dames Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell.
“A Simple Favor,” starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as mom opposites who form a dangerous bond, is the latest novel adaptation (in this case, of author Darcey Bell’s 2017 beach read) to mine well-appointed domesticity for devious doings, and before it can even dig into its twists, there’s the eyebrow-raiser of who its director is: comedy guy Paul Feig.
But is it really a surprise? Having used the cop thriller (“The Heat”), espionage adventures (“Spy”) and sci-fi action (the “Ghostbusters” reboot) for his brand of female-centric comedy, it’s pretty clear he knows how to thread wackiness into any genre. So is it any wonder he’d see room for laughs in a story about Kendrick’s upstanding, neurotic mommy vlogger Stephanie getting in over her head with the mysterious life of Lively’s chic, globetrotting parent Emily?
And early on, before its noir-ish elements (suspicious death, hidden pasts, paranoia) reach their fullest, darkest bloom, “A Simple Favor” has the prickly comic tension of an old-fashioned oil-and-water set-up. Stephanie, when not playing Martha Stewart for her internet following, is the kind of overly responsible, enthusiastic mom who signs up for too many tasks for the school fair, to the exasperated looks of a judgmental cadre of cliquish parents (led by Andrew Rannells’ snarky dad).
But Stephanie, at heart a lonely soul, is also naturally curious when the source of most parents’ disapproval, Emily — a high-powered fashion PR executive we first see in a rain-soaked glamour slo-mo sporting a pin-striped suit and fashionably cocked umbrella — zeroes in on her for a martini playdate. Stephanie is soon seduced by Emily’s fancy modern house, self-effacing wisecracks about negligent mothering, sexy marriage (to “Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding’s British author Sean) and alcohol-fueled, secret-sharing conversations. Stephanie accepts as a true friendship what everyone else sees as Emily taking advantage of a mom hardwired to help with anyone’s kids.
Kendrick’s and Lively’s getting-to-know-you exchanges have plenty of pleasurable bite. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (“Nerve”) and Feig treat them like bubbly, enigmatic duels of differing agendas. Lively comfortably exudes mischievous charm and power, while Kendrick displays her usual gift for self-deprecating smarts and hilariously trailing-off asides. In another era, this would sound like a negative, but you can imagine binge-watching a tangy episodic comedy with these two.
So it’s something of a shock when the plot’s inciting incident — Emily’s disappearance after asking Stephanie to pick up her son from school — sends the movie into thriller-mechanics territory that’s never as fun and practically hobbles “A Simple Favor” from ever regaining its delightful first-act edge. Soon we’re in the playground of police inquiries (with Bashir Salahuddin as a nosy detective), sexual tension between the left-behind adults, and amateur sleuthing on Stephanie’s part, which leads to out-of-town characters from Emily’s past played by Linda Cardellini and Jean Smart, who speak to hidden depths in Stephanie’s missing friend.
The problem is that none of this is very compelling — like a bumpy mash-up of the cheesiest parts of novelist Ira Levin’s domestic-suspense oeuvre — and when Feig tries to squeeze in wisecracks amidst the revelations, they feel like hedges against your interest flagging rather than naturally funny moments. That being said, classic noir made room for caustic wit, but there’s a stark, alarming difference between the brittle humor of the pre-disappearance scenes and the uneasy mix of seriousness and jokes after things get genuinely dark.
There’s a modicum of craft to the puzzle that eventually unfolds; it just doesn’t add to your interest in Stephanie, or Sean, or Emily as a threesome of unfulfilled desire and domestic intrigue. If anything, these characters start to lose their fizz when they become merely cogs in the gears of the plot, even as Kendrick gamely approaches her scenes as if she’s launching a mommy-detective franchise. But unlike “Spy,” which took great pains to make its cloak-and-dagger shenanigans as exciting, and thematically meaningful, as the raucous comedy around it, “A Simple Favor” is like two different movies, a sophisticated sisterhood lark you want more of, and a ho-hum buried-secrets murder mystery getting in the way of your good time.
Even Feig’s affectionate use of aromatic French pop songs, perhaps suggesting that we’re in a fizzy Gallic romp, feels mildly desperate instead of an atmospherically fun accompaniment. I would still trust Feig over most comedy directors with the kind of high-concept entertainment hybrid “A Simple Favor” wants to be, but this time his bid to mix modern laughs and Flynn-ty, Hitchcockian twists feels more like a series of knots.