The cast of "A Simple Favor" is a joy, particularly Kendrick, a skilled comedian with the look of a tiny ingénue, who plays a mommy vlogger whose best friend goes missing. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
One of the great pleasures of moviegoing is seeing an actor perfectly cast, in a role that takes all of the performer’s trademarks and quirks and transforms them into something we haven’t seen before. Such a performance is at the center of Paul Feig’s sly thriller/comedy “A Simple Favor,” and the actor is Anna Kendrick.
Kendrick, a skilled comedian with the look of a tiny ingénue, plays mommy vlogger Stephanie Smothers, a young widow with a 5-year-old son and an outlook of chirpy positivity. In the movie’s opening scene, we see her in one of her homemade videos, wearing a kitty-print apron and nervously addressing her (very few) followers with the news that her best friend, Emily, is missing. Her voice has a tinny chipperness, her toothy smile is just a bit forced, and she gives the impression of trying to take up more space than she does. The movie’s just a few minutes old, and we’re already invested in this person; Stephanie is both funny and complicated. (And she owns a helium tank, for balloons. Doesn’t every mom?)
“A Simple Favor” offers pleasures aside from Kendrick, especially during its masterful first half. That best friend, Emily (an amused Blake Lively), is Stephanie’s opposite in many ways: she’s tall, sleekly sophisticated, indifferent to domestic arts (though she mixes a mean martini) and drawlingly sarcastic. And she’s married, to a handsome novelist husband (suave Henry Golding, of “Crazy Rich Asians”) — who is, like Stephanie, mystified when Emily disappears. Feig, better known for straight-up comedy (“Spy,” “The Heat,” “Ghostbusters”), draws out the movie’s early acts deliciously, letting the actors play with their roles and creating a near-Hitchcockian tone of slinky ominousness, cut with the driest of wit.
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Things don’t quite hold up through the (slightly too long) running time; the story, based on a novel by Darcey Bell, can’t quite sustain its early promise and ends up flailing a bit. The cast, however, remains a joy, particularly Kendrick. I remember her breakthrough role in “Up in the Air” nine years ago, as a very young, fast-talking character sticking out her chin and taking on the business world. Here, she still has that quality of determined, high-strung perseverance (“We are soldiering on, with cookies and origami,” a distraught Stephanie tells her vlog audience); she knows she’s not cool, but that’s not going to stop her. Watch her, in a throwaway physical comedy moment involving a bench on which it is, apparently, impossible to perch in a slouchily defiant fashion. Stephanie is going to sit on that bench if it kills her; she, in the hands of Kendrick, is an unstoppable — and very funny — force.
★★★ “A Simple Favor,” with Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Jean Smart, Bashir Salahuddin, Rupert Friend. Directed by Paul Feig, from a screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell. 116 minutes. Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence. Opens Sept. 14 at multiple theaters.