Culture clash comedies can be hit-or-miss, but writer, director and star B.J. Novak gives us a good one with his new film “Vengeance”. What makes this surprisingly rich and textured movie stand out is its blend of influences. It’s a black comedy. It’s a murder mystery. Parts of it has a Western flavor while other parts feel like a neo-noir. It has a can’t-miss satirical bite and offers some timely commentary on the Red State/Blue State divide that’s not-so-silently ripping our country apart. The movie isn’t overtly political. Instead, it’s interested in how we as Americans burrow into our own groups and are quick to judge anyone who doesn’t fit within them.
Novak (“The Office”) plays Ben Manalowitz, a newly hired writer for The New Yorker and an aspiring podcaster. We first meet him at a Brooklyn rooftop party where he and his equally flakey buddy (John Mayer) tout their skewed views on monogamy while questioning what constitutes a “meaningful relationship”. To these guys, hook-up culture allows them to satisfy their self-absorbed needs without putting in the effort of viewing people as more than fixtures. They’re a rather insufferable pair who seem to revel in their big city smugness yet are oblivious when it comes to the shallowness and real-world detachment in their worldview.
You would think that writing for The New Yorker would make a guy like Ben happy. But his complacency is only outdone by his ambition. He’s enamored with the idea of having something profound to say and a podcast would give him that platform. He has the support of his friend and producer Eloise (Issa Rae) who runs a podcast company. But he needs a theme and a story that people want to follow. He finds one in the most unexpected of places.
Ben gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a stranger named Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook). He’s the older brother of a young woman named Abilene (played briefly in recordings by Lio Tipton). Turns out Ben and Abby hooked up a couple of times when she visited New York. While he didn’t bother to get her last name, she went back home to West Texas telling her family they were a couple. A heartbroken Ty informs Ben that Abby is dead from an alleged opioid overdose. In one of the more far-fetched bits, Ben is guilted into flying to Texas for Abby’s funeral despite not knowing her nearly as well as the family believes.
When Ben arrives he’s picked Ty, a well-meaning yokel who firmly believes his sister was murdered. “She never touched so much as an Advil,” he attests. Of course he doesn’t have any evidence nor has he taken his suspicions to the local authorities. But he’s determined that Ben join him after the funeral to help “avenge” her death. Now to Ben, Abilene is just a name in his phone; nothing more than a wannabe singer who overdosed in a Texas oilfield. But she’s also a potential story and she could be Ben’s much desired ticket to fame.
So with as much faux compassion and sincerity as he can muster, Ben convinces Ty and the rest of grieving family that he’ll get to the bottom of what happened to Abilene. What he’s really doing is shaping his podcast by recording conversations with family members and other locals and sending them to Eloise in New York. But (of course) the more he gets to know Abilene’s family and gets acquainted with dusty rural living, the more he begins questioning his own motivations.
“Vengeance” is full of laugh-out-loud exchanges as Ben makes his best efforts to fit in. Whether Novak is poking fun at small-town Southern quirks or picking away at his own character’s big city sensibilities, the movie finds a lot to laugh at from both cultural camps. That said, it’s clearly country-fried Texas that takes most of the ribbing. It doesn’t reach the point of full mockery, but the movie does have its share of broad Southern characterizations. But many of them are genuinely funny, and the movie never lets Ben and his city-boy condescension off the hook.
While comedy runs throughout “Vengeance”, the second half sees Novak veering away from formula and carving out a few trails of his own. He takes many of the stereotypes he leans on early and shatters them, using the pieces to pose some compelling questions. But it’s the character twists that surprise the most. Holbrook’s Ty is a fascinating character – a striking balance of hayseed caricature and clear-eyed revelation. But the most intriguing character comes from a scene-stealing Ashton Kutcher. He plays record producer/small town philosopher Quinten Sellers. He has the look of a snake-oil selling goof. But once he begins speaking, you can’t turn away.
While I’m still not sure if I fully buy the final ten minutes, I do buy B.J. Novak as a feature filmmaker. “Vengeance” is a movie made with confidence and even the few bits that don’t entirely work show a willingness to bend the rules and take some big swings. Overall, “Vengeance” is a film that entertains us, engages us, and indicts us all at the same time. It’s hard not to be impressed with Novak who turns his nerd-out-of-water comedy into something weightier and with more punch. “Vengeance” opens in theaters today (July 29th).