“Vengeance” may sound like the title of an action-packed thriller, and there have been films with that name before. However, “Vengeance”—the first feature from writer/director/star B.J. Novak, co-star and co-writer of the American version of “The Office”—discusses vengeance in much greater detail than most other films. Perhaps too great a level of detail for some audiences members’ liking.
The plot begins when Ben Manalowitz (Novak), an aspiring public intellectual from New York, receives a phone call at his Manhattan apartment late one night from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), a writer for the New Yorker (Novak), Ty is calling Ben to tell him that his sister, Ben’s girlfriend—who was strangely also named Abilene, Abby for short—has died. She resides in one of the flattest backwaters of West Texas, a modest town five hours from Abilene that is two hours and forty minutes from Dallas. Ty is calling Ben to inform him that his sister, Ben’s girlfriend—who was oddly also named Abilene, Abby for short– has passed away.
Although Ben sleeps with multiple women and doesn’t seem to be in a committed relationship with anyone, a quick check of his phone reveals that he has hooked up with an aspiring singer named Abby (Lio Tipton) on several occasions. Somehow he ends up letting himself be talked into traveling to Abby’s hometown, attending her funeral, and commiserating with her grieving family, which also includes her younger sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), her kid brother El Stupido (Elli Abrams Beckel), and her mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron). Ty tells Ben that Abby was murdered by a Mexican drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), and he asks if Ben will assist the family in looking for answers.
Ben is a narcissist who seems to view every relationship and experience as a way of raising his status as a writer and quasi-celebrity. So, when he announced that he was going to Texas to attend the funeral of a woman he didn’t really know, we were all surprised. The idea starts to sound more credible once he begins talking to the family and placing them into his preconceived East Coast ideas of “red state” and “blue state” people, and proposing his theories about temporal displacement. Every person may live in each and every time period, save the present, if they so desire thanks to modern technology, he claims. According to him, only backward-looking desires are vengeance’s sole motivation.
Ben is intrigued by the prospect of creating a podcast equivalent to a great American novel, and he decides to stay around to gather material for an audio series, which will be directed by his friend Eloise, a New York-based podcast editor for a National Public Radio-like organization. (Issa Rae shines as Eloise in this thinly written role.)
If Ben’s creative vision sounds like the blather you’d hear on a true crime podcast in which an actual person’s murder becomes brunchy rumination on law and truth by a group of Ivy League college graduates based in Brooklyn, he is aware that he’s sliding towards that cliché—as is Eloise, who early on jokes that Ben is the only white man in America without a podcast. Even though they embrace the templates, tropes, and clichés in their work, they do so without exception.
Unfortunately, so does the film. This is a film that admonishes its hero and the “red state” people he interacts with for failing to look beyond the clichés they’re fed by their own self-enclosed media loops, while also feasting on them, much like “The Daily Show” and its many imitators—and similar to Jon Stewart’s most recent picture Irresistible. On one side of the great divide is a nation of “coastal elites” who name-drop cultural tidbits that they learned in college and never revisited. This group is largely driven by Harvard-educated Jewish people like Ben; Snicker at monogamy and believe that everything between the coasts that isn’t a Top Ten city is little more than a backwater. The people of said wasteland are known for having numerous guns in their houses for each person (including the children), using them to resolve interpersonal squabbles rather than calling 911.
Even as “Vengeance” meets all of the op-ed criteria on the American abridgement chart, it also offers characters with quirks and depth that we’ve never seen in a film before. Ben himself is quite an interesting character; it’s to Novak’s credit that we eventually penetrate past Ben’s buzzwords and NPR-ready voice to discover the character’s self-hate (and, it would appear, the filmmaker’s) when he realises he is a victim of his own same illogical thinking. (Ben’s actions more closely resemble those of the main character in a French comedy rather than an American one–or like the characters played by Canadian comedian Ken Finkleman in “The Newsroom” and “More Tears.”) The film contains limited talk about how racial inequality fuels politics, and no mention of Trump, Greg Abbott, or how Texas has changed into an authoritative nation-state. The film provides an insightful look into the life of a family residing in Appalachia, where the economically-disadvantaged white population is beleaguered by a rampant drug problem. Although mines are constantly brought up throughout the story, they only symbolize the struggles that this demographic faces on a day-to-day basis.
The supporting cast has a number of individuals who seem one-note at first but quickly display their sharp individuality. Smith-Cameron appears underutilized at first, but she becomes the emotional heart of Ben’s tale, and her final scene is quite moving. Quinten Sellers, Abby’s former record producer and a Phil Spector-esque figure from West Texas, plays a significant role in the story. He is often found preaching abouttime, space, individuality, art drugs and hedonism to anyone who will listen – think of him as Marlon Brando or Dennis Hopper mixed withmonologues delivered in 1970s American art film. Ashton Kutcher sells his role in what could be considered a career-best performance. With eerie intensity, a ten-gallon white cowboy hat, and lanky frame, it’s almost as if Sam Shepard came back from the dead to play Col. Walter Kurtz.
The movie is available on Cinema HD
Novak is a perceptive screenwriter who has many insightful things to say about the United States in the year 2022. The only issue is that it seems he’s set on saying all of them in one feature film. The result is a jumbled, fitfully amusing, but occasionally fascinating effort that nonetheless shows potential even while tripping over its ambition and falling victim to some of the same stereotypes about “red” and “blue” (or reactionary and progressive) America that it keeps intimating that Americans must transcend. The first fifteen minutes aren’t the best, but hang in there! The movie gets better and more unpredictable as it goes. And you’ll be really impressed by the ending–it’s not at all what you’re expecting. Novak is famous enough that he could’ve easily put together a self-indulgent two hours of nothing and still gotten into South by Southwest with it, but thankfully he decided to actually make a real movie instead.
Director: B.J. Novak
Writer: B.J. Novak
Stars: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron