A Simple Favor
Directed by Paul Feig
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Rupert Friend, Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini
Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence.
1 hr. 57 min.

The title, A Simple Favor, is not what it implies. There is no simplicity here. It gives no clue that an act of friendship will lead to a maze of twists that would dislocate Chubby Checker’s hips. And it’s sneaky-funny along the way.

You’ve got to love a stylish mystery that’s also a dark comedy with killer zingers and a toe-tapping soundtrack of groovy 1960s pop songs in French. The vibe may be ’60s chic, but the essence of this movie is best summed up in the ’90s album title Crazy Sexy Cool — on the verge of camp, but slick.

Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a petite, widowed mom; a pretty, earnest nerd who posts a daily vlog about homemaking. Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) is a sleek, smooth, smart, sarcastic, sophisticated will-o’-the-wisp. Odds on friendship growing between these two seem long, but shortly after their young sons have a playdate, they form a bond.

Kendrick’s Stephanie wears kitten-print blouses from Gap and Target, and chatters in her Gilmore Girls rapid-fire delivery at full tilt. Lively’s Emily (the P.R. director for a fashion designer) channels Marlene Dietrich, sans top hat, and is blunt, sardonic and ribald; she never fails to sting with a rejoinder. They cultivate an alpha-beta mutual admiration. Then Emily disappears. That’s when the fun starts. It’s also as far as I can go explaining the plot. As it moves along, A Small Favor throws more curves than Dodger great Clayton Kershaw.

So we’ll center on the actors. Anna Kendrick has perfected cute, geeky-charmer roles since her Oscar-nominated turn in Up in the Air. Blake Lively has stepped into the Gwyneth Paltrow roles that Paltrow can no longer play, and she’s cranked it up a notch. Like the character of Stephanie, you’re sucked in by the beauty and the easy wit, and don’t realize you’re being owned. Kendrick and Lively, as unlikely a screen pair as they may seem, have believable chemistry — vital, considering the hairpin turns that await.

Henry Golding is Emily’s novelist husband, Sean. In what has to be a case of astounding good fortune, A Simple Favor premiered as Crazy Rich Asians continued its hit run in theaters. Golding has two top-10 films at the box office as October begins, a feat that should make him the burgeoning young movie hunk of the year. That’s one heck of a coup.

As far as this film, keep in mind that Emily and Sean have a sexually powerful but otherwise troubled marriage — at one point he intimates that he essentially stopped writing, “to pursue this woman,” which leads to financial problems for them.

Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack and Aparna Nancherla are deliciously snarky as fellow parents who can’t believe Stephanie and Emily are close. Jean Smart appears, and Linda Cardellini plays an avant-garde artist responsible for a painting that might be described as a dam-building, semi-aquatic rodent, if one’s definitions get confused. It’s one of the movie’s hilarious running gags.

Director Paul Feig is better known for comedies such as Bridesmaids, and believe me, the humor is here. Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, is sharp, crackling with that aforementioned wit, and manages not to scrape itself (or develop vertigo) turning all those corners in the last act.

I’m itching to give you more clues, but it wouldn’t be fair. Look for potent martinis, those great French versions of ’60s tunes, Emily’s haughty designer, Boss (Rupert Friend), and his crew, a dotty mother (Smart), plenty of laughs, suspense and secrets . . . lots of secrets.