Ken­drick, Lively have fun in naughty mommy noir

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY GARY THOMPSON

In the sharp- el­bowed arena of com­pet­i­tive mom­my­ing, no one is safe, an idea that “A Sim­ple Fa­vor” ex­am­ines over arched eye­brows and mixed drinks, with mostly amus­ing re­sults.

Paul Feig’s mis­chievous thriller stars Anna Ken­drick as Stephanie, a widow and sin­gle mother who’s turned all of her con­sid­er­able en­ergy into hy­per-par­ent­ing (her last name is Smoth­ers). At school, a teacher warns her away from the vol­un­teer board, beg­ging her to give oth­ers a chance to pre­pare gluten- free snacks and meat­less meat­balls. In the mar­gins, a Greek cho­rus of snarky par­ents make fun of her striv­ing, but we are on Stephanie’s side, be­cause it is Ken­drick’s gift (shared with Reese Wither­spoon) to make these pert per­fec­tion­ists some­how lik­able.

In her hands, Stephanie be­comes a sym­pa­thetic por­trait of a vul­ner­a­ble woman hid­ing be­hind a fa­cade of man­u­fac­tured self-con­fi­dence — never more ap­par­ent than when she’s host­ing her vir­tu­ally un­watched mommy vlog (the movie would make an in­ter­est­ing dou­ble fea­ture with “Eighth Grade”).

Stephanie’s life is up­ended when a play- date ini­ti­ates an op­po­sites-at­tract friend­ship with the school’s most icon­o­clas­tic mother. Emily (Blake Lively) is a stylish woman who works a glam­orous job in the city, who has mys­te­ri­ous tat­toos, $500 shoes, and drinks sub-zero gin mar­ti­nis in the af­ter­noon while ban­ish­ing the chil­dren to the other room while en­cour­ag­ing con­fes­sional con­ver­sa­tion about sex.

Lively and Ken­drick have good chem­istry, and the dif­fer­ences be­tween their char­ac­ters (ma­ter­nal/sex­ual, pas­sive/as­sertive) are clev­erly and not too broadly drawn by writ­ers Jes­sica Sharzer and Darcey Bell. Even the wardrobe (one doubts that Ken­drick will keep her out­fits) and pro­duc­tion de­sign get laughs (sen­si­ble Stephanie drives a Subaru, Emily a Porsche).

They be­come fast friends, but while the kids play in the park and Stephanie tries to snap Emily’s pic­ture for her vlog, Emily re­acts an­grily and de­mands the pic­ture be erased. What is she hid­ing? Here, the movie sug­gests the women un­der­stand each other be­cause in im­por­tant ways they are alike — pre­sent­ing a care­fully con­structed im­age to the pub­lic, one that ob­scures an un­scrubbed re­al­ity.

All of this comes to a head when (not a spoiler) Emily dis- ap­pears. When she does, so does much of the Lively/ Ken­drick in­ter­play that makes the movie so much fun. The over­long sec­ond half gets lost in plot me­chan­ics that are less in­ter­est­ing than the char­ac­ter dy­nam­ics, and in some cases con­flict with what we know of the women (there is the sense that the story, adapted from Bell’s novel, has been toned down for the big screen).

Still, it’s fun to see Stephanie turn her mommy skills (“I’m a prob­lem solver”) to de­tec­tive work, as the mys­tery of Emily’s dis­ap­pear­ance be­comes en­twined in her own fate. She starts spend­ing a lot time with her friend’s hand­some hus­band, played by Henry Gold­ing (“Crazy Rich Asians”).

Ken­drick gets to show off her comic ver­sa­til­ity (equally good with a quirky line read­ing, or get­ting slap­stick laughs stuck in a cock­tail dress) and there is am­ple room for funny sup­port­ing roles — Linda Cardellini as an artist who knew Emily when, and Bashir Salahud­din as the lo­cal po­lice de­tec­tive.

And there’s some­thing to be said for the movie’s heavy pour of mommy noir — a jig­ger of Bombeck, a dash of High­smith. It’s a cock­tail with a kick.

AP PHOTO/ PETER I OVINO/ LION­S­GATE

Anna Ken­drick, left, and Blake Lively in a scene from “A Sim­ple Fa­vor.”

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