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Deep in the heart of Texas – ‘Vengeance’

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Deep in the heart of Texas – ‘Vengeance’ (Patti Perret /Focus Features)

Triple-slash projects have long been a subject of fascination for me. The amount of confidence, bravado and sheer will necessary to write, direct AND star in a film is considerable; add to that the fact that these sorts of movies tend to be passion projects and you’re almost guaranteed something that will be, if not necessarily good then at least interesting.

“Vengeance,” the new film from writer/director/star B.J. Novak, is both.

It’s a compelling tale of a writer and aspiring podcaster making his way to Texas to try and use tragedy as fodder for his own creative endeavors, marked by smartly executed mystery and plenty of dark comedy. It’s also a thoughtful exploration of the exploitative nature of a certain kind of storytelling and the impact that those stories can have not just on the audience, but the subjects.

Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is a writer living in Brooklyn. He’s successful – he works for The New Yorker – but he’s also possessed of an inflated sense of self. He’s high on his own supply, basically, radiating a degree of unearned confidence even as he bullshits his way through the world. However, even though he’s successful, he wants to be MORE successful.

Specifically, he wants a podcast, because OF COURSE he wants a podcast.

He tries to pitch an acquaintance of his, an editor named Eloise (Issa Rae), on giving him one, but she’s lukewarm, asking if the world really needs another NYC white dude with a podcast. He needs something tangible, a real hook … and he gets one, from an unexpected place.

He receives an early morning phone call from someone telling him that his girlfriend had died. The only problem? He doesn’t have a girlfriend. After a moment or two, he realizes who is being discussed – a young woman named Abby that he hooked up with a couple of times. But the insistence of the person on the other end of the line compels him to get on a plane and head to the funeral in Texas.

And so Ben arrives in West Texas to attend the funeral of a woman he barely remembers as the guest of her family, all of whom believe him to be her boyfriend. He fakes it well enough and gets ready to return home. But when Abby’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) tells him that he believes Abby was the victim of foul play and tries to enlist Ben to help avenge her death, our aspiring podcaster believes he has found his hook.

From there, Ben dives in. He’s taken in by Abby’s family – her mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), her sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and K.C. (Dove Cameron), her younger brother Mason (Elli Abrams Bickel) and her grandmother Carole (Louanne Stephens) – and dedicates his time toward learning more about who Abby was and about this place from which she came.

His initially dismissive attitude about the place and its people is slowly chipped away as he learns more and more about the situation. He’s surprised not just by Abby’s family, but by others as well – aspiring drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa) and record producer Quinten Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), just to name a couple. What began as an arrogant effort to exploit this world for the amusement of his fellow elitists turns into something more, even as some harder, harsher truths about everyone involved start bubbling to the surface.

Will there be true vengeance in the matter of Abby’s death? And what form might it ultimately take?

No matter how you feel about the execution, there’s no denying that “Vengeance” would be a big swing for any first-time director, let alone one who also writes and stars. But that’s what Novak’s doing here – and it works.

Look, taking the piss out of the podcasting world and its seemingly unending parade of not-as-smart-as-they-think dudes and long-form atmospheric murder stories is low-hanging fruit. Novak gets it and leans into it, finding ways to poke fun without losing the thread. This kind of satiric treatment requires a healthy cynicism, sure, but too much and both the humor and the narrative will be swamped. Novak and his crew do a good job of striking that balance, acknowledging the ego-driven ridiculousness of it all while still allowing room for human connections to develop.

He also takes full advantage of his West Texas setting, showing us wide, lingering shots of oil wells (both active and idle) and sunsets setting the desert on fire. He mirrors the perceived bleakness of small-town Texas life with Ben’s growing understanding that in the ways that matter, people are pretty much people no matter where you go.

There’s a running bit where we get to watch Ben try and come up with introductory and transitional segments for the podcast, each of them overwrought and stuffed with inflated self-importance. His constant struggle to sound remotely genuine is just part of what makes this movie so funny, along with his utter inability to relate to this strange new world into which he’s been dropped.

“Vengeance” has its flaws. The pacing is a bit off in spots and we occasionally find ourselves dealing with some narrative murkiness. Neither is a big deal – it all still works – and both are likely just symptoms of a first-time director.

Self-direction is tough, but Novak’s enough of a pro to handle it. His turn as Ben is a nuanced one, showing us his gradual growth from a vaguely narcissistic jerk to a more empathetic, well … jerk. He’s still flawed at the end, but at least he’s making an effort – something that he’s clearly never really done before. And the supporting cast crushes. Holbrook is a hoot as the big-hearted shitkicker Ty. Smith-Cameron is gently charming and delivers a razor-sharp weaponized “Bless your heart.” The rest of the family shines as well, with each getting moments of big laughs, big feelings or both. Kutcher gives a low-key excellent performance, while Rae does great work in a role that feels just a bit underbaked.

(Oh, and John Mayer shows up at the beginning in an extended cameo that is hilarious. I’m still not sure if he’s playing himself, which just makes it all the funnier.)

“Vengeance” is a solid feature debut from Novak. Triple-slashing is always a crapshoot – you never know if you’re going to get good, bad, so-bad-it’s-good or what – but Novak’s talents behind the camera as both writer and director win out. If you’re going to make your directorial debut with your own first feature script, well … you can only hope that you make something as successful as “Vengeance.”

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 August 2022 10:03


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