I’m calling it: A Simple Favor (2018) is the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) of 2018. A female version, but not twist, of the classic noir plot, it delivers entertainment in spades thanks to a fantastically dapper and too-cool-for-school Blake Lively as femme fatale Emily (costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus), Anna Kendrick as Stephanie going so deep into character work that I honestly had no idea whether she was completely innocent, and Bashir Salahuddin playing Detective Summerville, a nasty-because-nice police detective who keeps his wisecracks to himself but lets them show on his face and in his line readings. Getting Henry Golding to play Sean, the patsy, is also an inspired choice: His newcomer energy plays right into the naivete required of the role. The characterization and backstories aren’t exactly all there, but as noirs go it makes a heck of a lot more sense than, say, The Big Sleep (1946), and it’s all held together by careful plotting (Jessica Sharzer, based on the book by Darcey Bell) and a coherent emotional throughline, putting another feather in director Paul Feig’s cap.
A device I sincerely appreciated in this film is the honest use of visual flashbacks. The film is always on the level with the viewer, either telling us the truth or not telling us at all. Whenever someone tells a huge lie, the film matches their voiceover dialogue to a visual flashback of what actually went down, so we can appreciate the twists and turns and how they ensnare and confuse the characters without getting lost ourselves.
And yet the plotting is so meticulous that in the climax, when Stephanie finally loses her shit, I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen, even setting aside the big twist. She has so much to gain from simply going with the flow and letting Emily get her way. Kendrick, perhaps due to her background in musical theater, has always employed a modular acting style, taking on the expressions and mannerisms of this or that “character” while keeping most complex emotions to herself, and it’s this that so successfully makes Stephanie impenetrably ambiguous.
In short, there’s nothing too fancy going on here (apart from Lively’s wardrobe), just some actors killing it in a bright and cheery noir. Which is to say that it’s a blast.