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SIMPLE FAVOR: Not quite the right tone

In the last 10 minutes of “A Simple Favor,” director Paul Feig strikes just the right tone.

If he had struck it earlier, this would be a much better movie.

Mind you, the new mystery starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively is not bad; folks seeking a slick, one-step-ahead-of-you thriller won’t be disappointed -- unless perhaps they also expected a typical Feig film.

He’s the writer-director best known for such comedies as “Bridesmaids,” “Spy” and TV’s cult-fave “Freaks and Geeks.”

“A Simple Favor,” by contrast, is a straightforward thriller, in which a naïve and upbeat mommy-vlogger (Kendrick) befriends a bad-girl (Lively) with a self-destructive streak and a handsome hubby (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”). When the mystery-lady disappears, Stephanie uses her vlog to initiate a search, while falling too quickly for the grieving spouse.

Writer Jessica Sharzer, who did a masterful job adapting Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak” in 2004, has a knack for dialog and plot twists; but Feig doesn’t quite know how to handle her material. There’s a certain artificiality about everything, like we’re watching types, or stock characters, rather than real people; and this combines with the increasingly surreal storyline to preclude the sympathy for troubled people that sustains most standard thrillers.

Ironically, if Feig had pushed this tone just a few steps farther toward farce or cartoon, he might have provided a more workable perspective from which to digest the lurid goings-on: a sort of comic detachment that has elsewhere served him well.

What’s especially puzzling is that when Sharzer reaches her effective set of concluding twists, Feig does finally shove it over into comedy -- and it works! The film’s resolution is so satisfying that you won’t feel ripped off, despite the earlier uneasy mix of straight-laced tone and over-the-top plotting.

Granted, a comedic approach might seem unsuited to a tale that frontlines an alarming range of depravity -- from alcohol and arson to adultery, heroin, murder, incest, betrayal and suicide. But satire can at least suggest that the author disapproves of such behavior and wants to show us how unacceptable it is.

Along these lines, Sharzer seems to be working up a theme about saints and sinners, but she never gets anywhere with this -- except to suggest (depressingly) that these two types generally wind up heading in the same direction: downward.

Despite its uneven tone, “A Simple Favor” is certainly well acted; among other things, it’s about time someone capitalized on the devilish twinkle that’s always lurked in Lively’s lovely looks; but if Feig’s film had managed to see everything with that kind of twinkle, it might have achieved something much more memorable and provocative.

“A Simple Favor,”

directed by Paul Feig

Run time: 117 min.

* * 1/2 (out of four)

Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence

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