The story begins with the unlikely friendship between Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and Emily (Blake Lively), the former a busybody mommy blogger, the latter a glamorous publicist with a fancy city office and a hot novelist husband (Henry Golding). Fellow parents at the school their sons attend suspect that Emily is just using Stephanie as a free, convenient after-school nanny, but the two also bond quickly, with the help of more than a few gin martinis (straight up with a twist, obviously). The seductively confident Emily reveals her and her husband Sean’s money troubles, Stephanie tells Emily about the death of Stephanie’s late husband, as well a particularly taboo secret from her adolescence. Then one day, Emily calls Stephanie to ask her to pick up her son from school, and then disappears without a trace.
The truth about Emily and her disappearance, as Stephanie makes it her business to find out, is a convoluted spiderweb of dark pasts, secret identities, and a dash of arson that would feel a little hoary if it wasn’t executed with such a dedicated sense of humor. (The film nears the two-hour mark, and certainly feels longer.) Kendrick is all hand-wringing and nervous giggles, not much we haven’t seen from her before, but a reliable engine to make this thing zoom along through every hairpin turn. But Lively (who is hitting some kind of brilliant stride between this and last year’s underappreciated All I See Is You) is a caustic and magnetic revelation; Feig has found a way to truly weaponize the breezily enviable charm that has been a check that Lively hasn’t always been able to cash. With her foul mouth and dapper-butch array of suits, she seems to be channeling the kind of huckster pickup artist every woman must learn to avoid at some point, but in a softer, more elegant (and probably more dangerous) guise. Golding, as in last month’s Crazy Rich Asians, is an immensely watchable, inoffensive hunk.
Those guessing that some kind of Ripley-esque action is on the horizon after Emily’s disappearance aren’t far off the mark, though the intersection of the two women’s lives is less Persona swap and more Rebecca. With its martini-swilling leads and swingy French pop soundtrack, A Simple Favor seems to yearn for a bygone era of nail-biter, but rather than wallow in pastiche, it comes up with something truly contemporary feeling. It’s a thriller in which two women are the centrifugal force of the intrigue, and unlike their pensive noir contemporaries, the sum total of all human nature doesn’t hang in the balance — just one woman’s mommy vlog.