Synopsis: A journalist and podcaster travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with.
Stars: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron
Director: B.J. Novak
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: The time we find ourselves living in is so “now” that it’s going to be strange to look back on it in just a few short years. It’s not just the technology that will undoubtedly be dated; the ideas, concepts, and beliefs we hitch our rides on will evolve from where they have been idling for the past 24 months. Maybe even further back than that is the generational divide that has driven interaction into one-sided conversations through podcasts available through your phone, computer, or other streaming devices. I remember when these tiny nuggets of info launched, and I could not grasp what I would receive through my earbuds. It wasn’t music, and it wasn’t an audiobook. Instead, they were informative dialogues, deep dives, and op-eds we sought out because they were points of view we were interested in.
The writer/director/star of Vengeance, B.J. Novak, is keenly aware of this medium as a delivery tool and how it has progressed from its educational origins to a lucrative business model for the profit-minded. For a while, his film finds some intriguing corners to shine a light into, uncovering characters we don’t often meet. These surprisingly agile moments give audiences a quirky look underneath expectations before the freshman filmmaker throws it all away for one of the most uncomfortable displays of narrative wrongheadedness I’ve seen in some time.
As Vengeance opens, a woman dies on a small town Texas oil field in the middle of nowhere, trying to send a text begging for help. Meanwhile, out East in NYC, Ben Manalowitz (Novak, Saving Mr. Banks) and his friend John (singer John Mayer) are spending a typical night out discussing the trickier points of dating in the modern age. Later that night, Ben is awoken by a long-distance phone call letting him know a girl he used to date occasionally has been found dead and requesting his presence at her funeral in deep state Texas. The trouble is, while the deceased’s brother seems to know Ben well, Ben can’t place the girl as someone who has left much of an impression on him.
Curious to know more and riding a wave of guilt for forgetting someone who held him in high regard, Ben is on the next flight to Texas, meeting grieving sibling Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook, The Cursed) after landing. Vague recollections of Ty’s sister Abilene (Lio Tipton, Warm Bodies) emerge as Ben gets to know her family over the next few days. Soon, he’s investing his time in investigating her suspicious death. At the same time, he’s pitching his strange drama in real life to a podcasting producer wiz (Issa Rae, Little) who agrees this odd tale might make for addictive listening. Armed with his agenda while purporting to be helping the Shaw’s serve theirs, Ben explores this tiny Texas town and its colorful characters, finding the case can only be cracked by unraveling a tricky knot of deceit.
If Novak was a true amateur, one might be able to forgive how lumpy Vengeance feels throughout. What begins as a mystery eventually curves into examining blue state/red state eccentricities that opens into a study of cultural justice doled out via social media. The lightest takedowns of toxic misogyny are peppered within, equivalent to a satirical send-up that only an Ivy League grad could get away with without losing sleep. The real issue comes with the ending, and let me be clear, it’s not merely a case of, “I didn’t like it, so, therefore, it’s bad.” This finale turns a central character around in such a head-spinning way that I halfway thought it was a dream sequence. Not only does it fail the rest of the movie in the course of storytelling, but it doesn’t make sense logistically or ethically. It’s a shocking torpedo that soured my opinion of the whole film because it made me go back and analyze it with much more scrutiny.
That’s all so disappointing because were it not for the ending, I think there would be much to recommend about Vengeance. I’ve never been on the Ashton Kutcher train, failing to find the charm (or, frankly, the star quality) that has set his star aflame. Novak’s film changed my mind on Kutcher (jOBS), though, because playing the role of a maybe-no-good record producer has given the actor something meaty to work with. Novak’s flair for dialogue to chew on works well with Kutcher’s delivery, and his two brief scenes are charged with an energy that’s markedly different than what we’ve seen before. Holbrook also has a nicely wired electricity to him, and there’s honestly nothing I wouldn’t like to see J. Smith Cameron (Man on a Ledge) do at this point. As the matriarch of the mourning family, the stage actress quickly takes control of the screen.
That ending, oof. I can’t forgive it, and while I would encourage giving Vengeance a look for Kutcher’s performance and the overall strength of some of Novak’s ideas he introduces, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it in the long run. Intelligent filmmaking also has to include being a responsible authority. Novak chooses an easy out based less on good ideas and more on what might be pleasing to the audience for a moment in time. That might be somewhat the point of it all, but it’s not a clear enough message of satire for the dark humor of it all to land correctly.