VENGEANCE: 3 STARS. “an ambitious movie bites off a bit more than it can chew.”
“Vengeance,” a new satire playing in theatres, written, directed and starring “The Office” actor B.J. Novak, mixes-and-matches social commentary, the opioid epidemic and social divides, in a story that plays like a murder mystery wrapped around a journey of self-discovery.
Novak plays New York City writer Ben Manalowitz, a shallow, self-absorbed, know-it-all who wants to host an important podcast that will make sense of America and its current state of divide. “I don’t just want to write,” he says pompously. “I want to have a voice.”
When an unknown number pops up on his phone in the middle of the night, it sets him on the path to finding his voice as a weepy caller gives him the “bad news” that his girlfriend has died.
Girlfriend? Which one?
Turns out it was Abilene (Lio Tipton), one of several women he dated at the same time. The family believes they were in love but Ben has to look up her photo to put a face to the name.
Abbey’s good-old-boy brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) insists Ben come to the funeral in West Texas. “I can’t do this,” Ben says. “None of us can do this,” says the grief-stricken Ty, “and face the future alone.”
Reluctantly Ben agrees to travel to West Texas and even gets roped into speaking at the funeral. “I wish I had known her better,” he says, looking at a picture of her and a guitar. “I wish I had spent more time with her. She loved music and will always be a song in our hearts.”
On the drive back from the funeral, Ty drops a bomb. “Abbey didn’t just die,” he says. “She was murdered. And we’re going to avenge her death.”
Why not just call the police? “In Texas we don’t call 911.”
Ben says, “As a personal boundary, I don’t avenge deaths. I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie,” but a lightbulb goes off. This is the story he has been looking for.
He agrees to investigate Abilene’s death in the form of a true crime podcast. “This isn’t a story for everyone,” he says. “It’s a story about the need for vengeance.”
Working with his New York based editor (Issa Rae) to shape the story, his investigation leads him into murky territory, both personally and professionally.
The film’s title suggests a blood-speckled search for retribution but “Vengeance” is more interested in provocation than payback. Abilene’s death is the engine that drives the story, but it’s also a McGuffin, an ultimately not important detail in the overall scheme of things. Novak is more interested in our preconceptions about each other in the great red-state/blue-state divide, and how those biases color the way we behave.
It’s a heady backdrop for a neo-western noir, and it starts strong as fish-out-of-water Ben slowly realizes there is life outside his tiny bubble. Ben is a satire of east coast arrogance, looking down on anyone who dares to live outside the borders of New York City. As he digs into Abilene’s passing, investigating if she was murdered or took an accidental overdose, he begins to place old prejudices aside and actually becomes less insufferable. He is pointed in a new direction as his moral compass leads him to wonder if his own caddish behavior may have played a role in Abilene’s fate and, with the podcast, if he is exploiting her family.
Unfortunately, it is also at this point that the film begins to crumble under the weight of broad MAGA characterizations and juicy droplets of pop psychology doublespeak like “everything is everything so everything is nothing.”
As the story splinters off into a satire of true crime podcasts and social media in general, it gets mired in its own philosophies and the fleet-footed pacing of the early sections slows, dragged to a stop by a muddle of ideas.
“Vengeance” is an ambitious movie that bites off a bit more than it can easily chew and digest, but provides enough laughs and intrigue to be worth a look.