Ads for the Anna Kendrick-Blake Lively mystery “A Simple Favor” don’t make anything at all of the movie’s pedigree as the work of director Paul Feig. Maybe the studio marketing savants thought it best to keep their darkly twisty release separate and distinct from such Feig comedies as “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” and — can’t win ’em all — “Ghostbusters.”
Yet it’s precisely because Feig’s latest incorporates so much of his patented gal-centric screwiness that it’s such a wicked riff on genre touchstones it slyly name-checks, the classic psychological thrillers “Gaslight” and “Diabolique.” (The latter isn’t the only Francophile flourish here; a soundtrack loaded with Brigitte Bardot tunes and other French pop is part of the ginchy vibe.)
Gamely adapted from Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, this unexpected hybrid yarn tosses together ingredients as easy-peasily as any recipe that chirpy suburbanite Stephanie (Kendrick) posts on her mommy vlog. At least, that’s what we’re likely to catch her uploading when she’s not using her perky platform to delve into suspected foul play.
Kendrick covers familiar cutely awkward territory as she befriends fellow parent Emily (Lively), a hard-charging, haute couture hipster who grudgingly invites her over for martini-lubed playdates because their grade schoolers have bonded. (“Mommy already has a playdate — with a symphony of antidepressants” somehow isn’t a beg-off that flies with the kids.) As the two women open up to each other, though, a more complicated Stephanie comes into focus. She’s someone with secrets, taboo needs and wants, and a burning drive to come up with an explanation when Emily asks for a baby-sitting solid then suddenly vanishes.
Guys figure into the intrigue, particularly Emily’s husband (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”), a one-hit-wonder novelist who naturally prefers lit-major Stephanie’s gushing Thackeray comparisons to his wife’s contempt. And Rupert Friend chews scenery with style as Emily’s designer boss, who argues that if any crime has been committed, it’s by in-his-face Stephanie and her appalling Fairfield fashion sense.
But as ever with Feig, the proceedings really run on girl power. His old “Freaks and Geeks” alumna Linda Cardellini pops up as a hard-rockin’ downtown artist who’s drawn graphic inspiration (and how) from Emily’s fabulosity. Jean Smart cameos with an amusingly nasty ode to motherhood. And Kendrick’s interplay with Lively crackles, whether they’re going for laughs or something darker. Both are big selling points — as is their director, even if it’s not as advertised.
A SIMPLE FAVOR
Directed by Paul Feig. Written by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell. Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding. Boston theaters, suburbs. 117 minutes. R (sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use, violence).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.