The debate about “A Simple Favor” will likely center around one question: At what point in the often thoroughly enjoyable semi-comic thriller does it shift tonally from elevated Lifetime Movie of the Week (which is not a knock) to overly goofy, in a way that reminds you that, yes, this was directed by Paul Feig, the guy behind “Bridesmaids,” “Ghostbusters” and “Spy”?
It’s incredibly frustrating — there is a really fun straight-ahead, slightly self-aware thriller here that keeps dipping its toe into broader comedy before falling in headfirst.
Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed single mom to Miles and a mommy vlogger in Connecticut.
Dorky and a little hyper, Stephanie is the sort who volunteers for absolutely everything and whose vlog addresses topics such as “pajama day at school” and “newborn visiting etiquette.” (How she affords to, say, not have a visible means of income is never completely addressed, or rather, it is gestured to in a way that never pays off, which is infuriating.)
Her life changes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively). Ever wonder what Serena van der Woodsen of “Gossip Girl” might be like a decade later? Here you go. Gorgeous, confident, just a bit sexually ambiguous, disdainful of suburbia, fond of men’s suits and the world’s driest martinis, Emily’s very existence blows Stephanie’s mind. As sometimes happens with parents, their kids become friends, and suddenly they are friends.
Stephanie is awkward and smitten around Emily and her gorgeous home, slightly intimidated by Emily’s cattiness around her ex-novelist husband Sean (Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame). But their friendship seems increasingly genuine — at least Stephanie certainly thinks so.
And then Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son, Nicky, from school. And then Emily vanishes. And then the twists and turns start.
For a while, “A Simple Favor” hums along with cheesy, thrillery affect, laying in questions-as-subplots that may or may not pay off.
Was Stephanie’s marriage actually good? What was her relationship like with her brother, who was killed in the same car accident that killed her husband? Was Sean having an affair with his teaching assistant? And where is Emily?
The biggest problem with “A Simple Favor” lies in one of balance: Feig cannot seem to quite decide how self-aware the movie is.
Is this a thriller with comic moments, or a comedy that is a parody of the “Gone Girl” thriller-wave? Is this an ironic exercise or not?
The reason that Lifetime thrillers with titles such as the immortal “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” and “Co-Ed Call Girl” work as comedy is that the films and the characters take themselves completely seriously, even if the actors do not.
Here, we seem to have the opposite problem: It is never completely clear if the characters are in on the joke or the actors are or what. This is a shame because if there is one thing Blake Lively can do, it’s taking absurd rich girl parts very seriously for maximum cheese effect.
There are a few sharp cameos: Rupert Friend as the high-powered designer for whom Emily is the publicist, a terrific Jean Smart as Emily’s boozy mom, Andrew Rannells as a local dad and Linda Cardellini as an artist with a bad memory of Emily. (Note: Please make a spin-off entirely about this character.)
But as the third act takes turn after turn after turn, Feig seems to lose control of the tone altogether, his confidence in sticking the landing evaporating before our eyes as increasingly silly scenes recall his earlier, broader comedies.
For a while there, “A Simple Favor” is loads of fun, sexy and just funny enough. Everything starts to fall apart when we suddenly have trouble figuring out if we should be laughing with these folks, or at them, or neither.
‘A SIMPLE FAVOR’
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding
Rating: R for for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, iPic, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Sky, Southpark, Stone Hill, Violet Crown, Westgate.