Vengeance

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Office is one of the great sitcoms of the 2000s. I state this as fact, not opinion, so perhaps I was more excited than most to hear that “Ryan Howard” made a film. B. J. Novak is best known for his work on the U.S. version of The Office. He also wrote, directed, and produced the sitcom, so he’s had significant experience behind the camera. Vengeance is his feature directorial debut. B. J. Novak also wrote the screenplay and stars.

Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is a struggling journalist based in New York City who casually dates many women. One night he gets a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), the brother of one of these arbitrary hookups. Aspiring singer Abby (Lio Tipton) has been found dead of an apparent overdose. Believing Ben was her serious boyfriend, Ty heartbreakingly delivers the news. Ben can barely remember who she was. Yet Ty is so distraught that Ben decides to fly to Abilene, TX (where Abby got her name) and attend the funeral. Sensing an opportunity for an exciting podcast, he chooses to stay and probe further into her death. He pitches his investigation to a successful producer back in New York. Eloise (in a compelling performance by Issa Rae) is receptive to the idea.

Vengeance is blessed with a clever script that straddles the line between intelligent satire and flat-out comedy. If you sense a tale about a shallow city slicker from New York who learns that gun-toting Texas are not as backward as he initially thought, you’d be right. However, how those relationships are detailed makes all the difference. The characterizations are beautifully revealed in random asides. An ongoing joke is how Ben frequently uses the phrase “100 percent” to express his “sincere” agreement. When Ty is touched by his use of the word, it’s an affecting moment. Another occurs when Abby’s sister Paris (Isabella Amara) demonstrates that she has read Chekhov, and Ben uncomfortably admits he hasn’t. There are a lot of those revelations.

Vengeance is a movie about the preconceptions and ignorance that outsiders have about people they don’t know. This is not another let’s “laugh-at-the-yokels” affair. BJ Novak’s observations about Texans are nuanced and render them as fully rounded human beings. Abby’s family is a likable clan. The ensemble of actors includes Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara, and J. Smith-Cameron in memorable roles. Ashton Kutcher deserves a special mention as a music producer. Oh sure they value their weapons and extol a love for fast food chain Whataburger that borders on the ridiculous, but the presentation is affectionate. The screenplay upended my expectations many times over.

I can’t say I was on board with every development that happens. I didn’t embrace the biggest surprise. The final act is punctuated by a shocking act of violence that is not earned. It’s as if Quentin Tarantino sabotaged the production. Despite that brief indiscretion into another genre, the story is mostly substance over style. The chronicle ultimately coalesces into a profound comment on culture and society. There is joy in this insightful reflection on humanity. I was delighted, and I think you will be too.

08-02-22

4 Responses to “Vengeance”

  1. I thought the writing was very clever. I mean that 100% lol. Lots of good performances here. Ending was a little surprising, but I guess that’s why it’s called Vengeance. 3 1/2 ⭐️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. there’s so much about this that seems cringe — a guy trying to career profit off someone/a quasi-stranger’s death, for starters, but I also suppose that’s part of the point as well. In subverting expectation, sounds like Vengeance becomes rather enjoyable. Curious about that ending, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ben’s behavior certainly sounds reprehensible. It helps that B.J. Novak’s character only attends the funeral because Abby’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) is so distraught. Ben simply wants to make Ty feel better. Then Ben gets an idea.

      Liked by 1 person

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