Release: Friday, July 29, 2022
👀 Amazon Prime
Written by: B.J. Novak
Directed by: B.J. Novak
Starring: B.J. Novak; Boyd Holbrook; Issa Rae; J. Smith-Cameron; Dove Cameron; Ashton Kutcher
Distributor: Focus Features
The Office alum B.J. Novak is no stranger to awkward situations, whether writing them or being the source of them. So it’s not that surprising he’d break into feature filmmaking with a culture clash comedy full of hilariously uncomfortable moments. Vengeance is more than a one-trick pony though; it’s an impressively assured début built around an intriguing mystery from which some sharp observations about modern society are spun off. Some developments are questionable but they mostly work in service of creating this very specific and authentic American experience.
Novak not only writes and directs but stars as Ben Manalowitz, a New York-based journalist and podcaster who lives in the high-rent district and enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle of casual hookups. As the movie begins the camera pulls in on a rooftop party where he debates the pros and cons of his noncommittal attitude with his equally unscrupulous friend John (John Mayer). Ben has had success already in his career but he doesn’t seem entirely satisfied and confides in his highflier producer-friend Eloise (Issa Rae) that he aspires to create a story that will resonate with everyone.
Eloise thinks he just lacks a human focus, arguing that people rather than ideas are what make stories interesting. That is until Ben receives a random phone call in the middle of the night from a man named Ty Shaw (a really good Boyd Holbrook) claiming that his younger sister Abilene (Lio Tipton), one of Ben’s recent one-night stands, has been found dead and he wants Ben to attend the funeral in West Texas, thinking he was a serious boyfriend. In one of the more unbelievable twists of the script he agrees to fly out and meet the family — mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), younger daughters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), sons Ty and Mason (Eli Abrams Bickel) and grandma Carole (Louanne Stephens). Somehow he makes a good impression despite delivering one of the worst eulogies you’ll ever hear.
No sooner has Ben committed his first faux pas is he being roped into a possible conspiracy surrounding the nature of Abilene’s passing. Although the death was ruled an overdose by authorities, Ty is adamant his sister never did drugs and suspects murder. He wants his city slicker pal to help him bring justice, extrajudicially of course. Ben, ever the opportunist, smells a story brewing, even if emerging themes of drug-related death and denialism feed right into his prejudiced assumptions about what goes on in backcountry Texas. Is Abilene merely another statistic or is there validity to Ty’s theories?
As Ben digs in deeper the more complicated the truth appears and the bigger the story seems to grow. Yet he can’t help but also question his own motives as he gets a better understanding of what Abilene meant to her family. As the investigation heats up Novak takes us into increasingly seedy territory and introduces a parade of capital-C characters, such as Ty’s wild-eyed friend Crawl (Clint Obenchain) who speaks ominously about “The Afterparty,” a plot of land near some oil fields where partygoers are often found dead. A low-level member of the cartel (Zach Villa) drops the act behind closed doors. There’s also the mysterious Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), an eloquently spoken record producer who has come to adopt Texas as his home. He proves to be quite the sound bite and one of the more interesting characters Kutcher has played in some time.
Vengeance begins its life as a simple misunderstanding that spirals into a broader moral conundrum that you’ve seen in a number of movies before. Novak doesn’t shy away from using tropes to carry out his central mystery and while many of them are effective (an extended scene at a rodeo is classic cringe, truly worthy of The Office) some are actually kind of problematic — the resolution in particular seems, at best, ironic and unrealistic. At worst, it’s a little self-serving and naive. Really this is no more offensive than the gentle slap on the wrist he gives the media about the role they play in shaping individual narratives and perceptions about other people.
Funny, poignant and hellaciously awkward at times, Vengeance is a black comedy that marks a confident and natural début for Novak, even accounting for the occasional lack of grace and less believable turns of fate. His film feels researched well enough to not come across as some amateurish ranting on what is ailing America. He captures the zeitgeist with something that is both entertaining and enlightening.
Moral of the Story: As a commentary on the rural/urban divide, it’s nowhere near the lecture you might think it could be, but there is some on-the-nose dialogue here and there. However Vengeance is made with earnestness and though the story is not 100% convincing, the setting as a lived-in reality absolutely is. On another, maybe lesser note, it’s a good example of what Ashton Kutcher can do with solid material.
Running Time: 107 mins.
Quoted: “I’d probably say that nobody writes anything. All we do is translate. So if you ever get stuck and you don’t know what to say . . . just listen. Even to the silences. Listen as hard as you can to the world around you and repeat back what you hear. That translation, that’s your voice.”
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