Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 28th, 2022
Vengeance (B.J. Novak, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.
A film that comes dangerously close to a parody of itself, writer/director/star B.J. Novak’s Vengeance nevertheless emerges, by its end, as a more nuanced take on its central themes than it initially promises to be. A combination of a fish-out-of-water tale, a look-how-quirky-the-provincial-fools-are comedy, and a comeuppance narrative, the movie rises above these conventions to deliver something unpredictable, surprising if not wholly satisfying. It may not be effective at “100%” (a favorite expression of the protagonist), but at three-quarters of that it still engages.
Novak (Ryan from NBC’s The Office) plays Ben Manalowitz, a New York-based journalist (who actually writes for The New Yorker) cursed with self-obsession and a refusal to commit to any one romantic partner. He is also dying to get into the podcast market, pleading with his friend Eloise (Issa Rae, The Lovebirds), a noted producer, for a shot at a show. Unfortunately, he has no story to tell. Until, that is, he gets a late-night phone call (while in bed with one of his many hook-ups) from Ty (Boyd Holbrook, The Predator), the brother of Abilene, a woman who is part of his large dating list. His voice shaking, Ty announces that Abilene (aka Abby) is dead. It’s clear that he and his entire family believe Ben to be her boyfriend and expect him to attend the funeral.
Rather than beg off and claim a misunderstanding (he can barely remember Abby), Ben flies out to West Texas, beyond the Pecos River, where he is greeted like a prodigal son. Beyond Ty, there are two younger sisters, a baby brother, a mom, and a grandmother. On the way back from the cemetery, Ty stops his truck and explains that he intends to seek revenge against those who killed Abby. Yes, she died of an opiate overdose, but who supplied her with the drugs? Ty has his ideas and tells Ben he has to help.
Though reluctant (what does he know about these things), Ben sees an opportunity for the podcast of his dreams. He pitches it to Eloise, and after initial hesitation, she is in. After all, as Ben proclaims, a “dead white girl” is the Holy Grail of podcasts. And so he starts recording everything as he and Ty pursue their investigation. The stage is set for an East Coast laugh-fest at those funny small-town Texans.
Fortunately, Novak is very self-aware about the risks he skirts, and though he nevertheless still engages in some occasionally cringeworthy humor, he just as often turns the spotlight on his own character’s unbearable condescension. In a bit of moving dialogue with local music producer Quentin Sellers (an excellent Ashton Kutcher, Colt on Netflix’s The Ranch), Ben gains needed perspective on the area and his own need to listen, rather than talk. This doesn’t quite stop him from making grand generalizations about how people descend into paranoid conspiracy theories and drug use, but it helps open his mind.
Though not all jokes land well, there is enough humor and authentic pathos to lift up the generic qualities of the script and redeem some of its flaws. The supporting cast is often strong (NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross even makes a funny vocal cameo!), and not everyone is a pure caricature (though many are). I have my doubts about the ending, but I’ll grant that it surprises. For that, I am grateful. I’ll take the bad and the ugly with the genuine good.