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With Bridesmaids, director Paul Feig managed a story as touching as it was gross. With A Simple Favor, he achieves a similar alchemy, delivering a tale that's often as funny as it is unrepentantly venal. If at times it seems Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (who adapted the Darcey Bell novel) fail to turn their base metal gold, it's quite a trick when it works.

As in the other TV shows (Freaks and Geeks) and movies where he has been the guiding force, Feig's characters here are vulnerable misfits whose absurd missteps occur while they are trying to meet relatable, universal goals.

A Simple Favor

82 Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Rupert Friend, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart

Director: Paul Feig

Rating: R, for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

In the case of Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), her over-enthusiastic volunteering at her son's school had caused the other parents to shun her. Her perky, can-do attitude invites open disparagement.

So she's instantly taken when newcomer Emily (Blake Lively) suggests the two down a couple of after-school martinis. Whereas Stephanie's idea of cutting loose is hosting instructional videos online, Emily drops F-bombs around her tiny son (who repeats Mommy's vocabulary) and seems a little too eager to share tales the carnal knowledge she has acquired.

To self-conscious Stephanie, Emily presents as a charming free spirit. She has a stylish, spacious home (complete with nude paintings of herself) and a handsome spouse named Sean (Henry Golding), who just happens to have written one of Stephanie's favorite novels.

Yet, it doesn't take much effort to see that something's off. The dream house doesn't really seem affordable; especially since Sean hasn't written anything since his debut novel. And while Emily fusses over her appearance and wears lots of fetching outfits, she refuses to be photographed.

Before Stephanie can full grasp all that's wrong in Emily's world, she agrees to watch her friend's son for a play date. When the play date winds up lasting days, she and Sean wonder if something dire is afoot.

Kendrick can easily play well-intentioned nerds, but in A Simple Favor, she demonstrates an ability to handle darker roles as well. Stephanie's sunny disposition masks a crushing insecurity and a self-destructive curiosity.

Lively can make Emily just charming enough to get by with behavior that ranges from carefree to psychopathic. Golding, handsomely bland in Crazy Rich Asians, seems at home playing a dreamboat who's starting to sink.

There are plenty of juicy bon mots tossed around in A Simple Favor (it's fitting that most of the soundtrack tunes are in French), but Feig might have pulled off even more surprises if he had trusted viewers a little more. Tweaking the chronology builds and stunts the suspense, and shifting the point of view one-too-many times occasionally takes viewers out of the film.

Toward the end, Feig's sense of pacing falters, but he thankfully remembers that it doesn't matter if the characters are gaslighting each other if viewers don't have a reason to care.

MovieStyle on 09/14/2018

Print Headline: A Simple Favor

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