Nothing Is What It Seems in ‘A Simple Favor’

If you have ever wondered what kind of an adult girl detective Nancy Drew grew up to be, Paul Feig’s delightful murder mystery “A Simple Favor” just might be the answer to your question.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mother living in the suburbs who volunteers at the drop of a hat for parental activities at her son’s grade school. She also talks too much and apologizes way too much. She stars in a crafts and cooking video blog called “Hi, Moms,” which is an object of derision from her skeptical neighbors.

Blake Lively plays Emily Nelson who is Stephanie’s polar opposite. Emily is a high-powered PR executive for Dennis Nylons, a self-absorbed fashion designer in the city. She is married to failing writer and college instructor Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), and they have constant sex and she steals things.

What Stephanie and Emily have in common are their sons, both the same age and both in the same school. This brings them together, and they become what Stephanie classifies as best friends, even though they have so little in common. In truth, shy, neurotic, won’t-shut-up Stephanie would love to be Emily. The same can’t said for Emily who alternates between being a patronizing big sister and the mean popular girl at school. She can manipulate the insecure Stephanie with a quick laugh and a shake of her head. They share secrets. Emily pushes Stephanie into revealing secrets she does not care to reveal. Emily spurts out a token scandal of her own that ultimately turns out to be untrue. And even if it were true, it would pale beside her true secrets, secrets that will create life-threatening situations for mommy blogger Stephanie.

Emily goes missing. One day she asks Stephanie to pick up her son from school and take him for the afternoon while she deals with an emergency. Husband Sean is in London taking care of his hospitalized mother. The afternoon turns into days. Stephanie tries to find Emily with no success. Sean returns. They both search for Emily. A master of little discretion, Stephanie turns to her blog and her subscribers. She tells them every little detail while enlisting their help. Emily is then found dead in a rental car at the bottom of a lake in Michigan.

But nothing is all that simple. Stephanie sleeps with grieving husband Sean. She moves in with him. It is discovered that Sean took out a four million dollar life insurance policy on Emily shortly before her death. And he seems to be having an affair with his teaching assistant.

It doesn’t end there. When Stephanie removes Emily’s entire plethora of clothes from her closet, she finds them mysteriously returned exactly to where they were before. Soon Emily’s son confesses to sightings of his dead mother. Who is to be trusted? Channeling Nancy Drew, Stephanie draws from her previously useless liberal arts English degree to track down leads and reveal the ugly truth.

Anna Kendrick has the frenetic charm and energy of a present day Carole Lombard, only more petite. She not only mimics Nancy Drew as much she comes off like the great screwball comics of the 1930s. There are few in films today that can hold the screen with the force of her personality like she can. Blake Lively is her equal. A foul-mouthed force of nature, Emily plays the dynamic foil to Kendrick’s mousy neurotic. Emily is the overwhelming powerhouse that threatens to overshadow the much smaller Stephanie.

The script by Jessica Sharzer based on a novel by Darcy Bell is on the surface fun and clever. As we come closer to a resolution, it becomes increasingly dark and violent. Feig’s direction handles the transition well.

But “A Simple Favor” belongs purely to Kendrick and Lively. It is their interaction and their amiable portrayal of two very different people that makes this movie a pure delight to watch.

A Simple Favor” opens 14 Sept. 14 in theaters nationwide.