MOVIE REVIEW

Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick team up for a deliciously twisty suburban noir in 'A Simple Favor'

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Are the secret lives of suburban women really as exciting as seen in "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train"? And in their TV counterparts, "Desperate Housewives" and "Big Little Lies"? Is murder and intrigue really as much a part of the domestic experience as toasters and Roombas? Apparently so, judging by the plethora of homicidal homemakers filling our screens. And you can add one more to the list with "A Simple Favor," the latest in an epidemic of entertainments featuring moms breaking bad.

It springs from the women-centric mind of director Paul Feig, the guy who made Montezuma's revenge part of the prenuptial regime in "Bridesmaids," and frumpy female tradecraft fashionable in the hilarious "Spy." This time, he attempts to up his game by mixing the expected laughs with the somber undertones of film noir. It doesn't always work, but even when it doesn't, resistance is futile. He also has the terrific presence of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively to fall back on whenever Jessica Sharzer's script (based on Darcey Bell's 2017 novel) runs out of malevolent gas.

The pair is every bit as delicious as the zucchini chocolate chip cookies Kendrick's overly perky Stephanie features on her little-viewed vlogger site intended to improve the lives of mommies like her who strive to be better people. And when Stephanie's mousy naivety succumbs to the evil clutches of Lively's gorgeous and worldly femme fatale, Emily, it sends an oh-so-pleasurable charge through the body. It's not giving too much away to say these opposites (one is short, poor and brunette and the other rich, willowy and blonde) instantly attract, each smashing through their protective veneers to free their worst instincts.

You're hooked from the start, when a playdate between their young sons leads to alcohol-fueled fun and games for two women harboring dark pasts and repressed guilt. Funny how vodka martinis can slice through the inhibitions; and it's even funnier when these two skilled actresses perform their noirish dance with clever dialogue that's as humorous as it is diabolic. The shame is that it only lasts through the first act, then the plot ill-advisedly splits them up, sending Emily off into the enigmatic ether as a disappeared woman. Where did she go, and why? That's what Stephanie wants to know, and she turns to her YouTube show to ask her smattering of followers to provide her clues.

If you're sensing a "Gone Girl" vibe in which dirty deeds and mass media blend into a zeitgeist of ugliness, you're right on track. There's even a dopey, womanizing husband, a la Ben Affleck's character in "Gone Girl," to possibly take the rap. He's played superbly by hunky "Crazy Rich Asian's" breakout Henry Golding, a guy so charming and hot (just wait until you taste his orgasmic smoothies!), you know it's only a matter of time before his Sean will be bumping uglies with the long-widowed Stephanie.

Therein rests the film's most glaring flaw; and that's its utter lack of originality. I'm told that was also a problem with the novel, and Sharzer and Feig do little to solve it. Yes, Feig spins it in a light, comedic vein that borders on genre parody. But he also can't resist succumbing to the clichés at which he's poking fun. He and Sharzer even go so far as to start name-dropping the classic film's their paying tongue-in-cheek homage, like "Gaslight" and "Diabolique." They also load up on plot twists involving incest, twins and a loopy mother (the always excellent Jean Smart) who lives like Miss Havisham in a blighted mansion.

After a while it starts to get silly and monotonous, especially when it labors through a third act that awkwardly shifts the emphasis from comedy to standard thriller tropes culminating in — say it together — a final showdown involving wires, guns and nanny cams.

It leaves you a tad frustrated, but much of what preceded it is so enjoyable it's impossible to hold grudges. And, we'll always have Rupert Friend to fondly remember for his devastatingly funny portrayal of Emily's ridiculously pompous boss, Dennis Nylon, the flamboyant empty head running the high-end fashion house where Emily worked before vanishing. He's only around for a too-small fraction of a nearly two-hour film, but leaves its longest-lasting mark.

Still, he's a symptom of a movie that is unable to focus beyond its fixations, resulting in an experience that jumbles the mind in a way that leaves you confused and unsure. You want to believe in "A Simple Favor," but your head won't allow it, but your heart demands it. Ultimately, it comes down to expectations. If they're high, you're going to be deeply disappointed. But, if they're low and you're willing to trade credulity for a mindlessly joyous romp, have at it. You'll be murderously rewarded.

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