B.J. Novak’s self-assured Vengeance is a darkly irreverent Texas Noir that shows enough promise to be worth your time, but the confounding experience leaves much to be desired.
I admire creatives who try and bring opposing sides together. The problem is most are complete, eye-rolling disasters. John Stewart’s Irresistible was an exercise on how both sides can p**s into the wind without getting their pants wet. At least Craig Zobel’s The Hunt is clever and gory and admits how difficult it is to come together. And then we have B.J. Novak’s first time behind the camera. He tries to take this sensibility woven into an irreverent Texas Noire that is forced and does not always work the way it was intended. However, there is enough promise with Vengeance to make it worth your investment. Just enough.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a journalist and hopeful podcaster. After hanging out day after day being the cool guy at the poor glued to his phone and taking home a different woman every night, he runs into a famous podcast producer, Eloise (Issa Rae). He wants to make something real, a podcast that will bring a divided country back together. He gets that chance with a phone call from a man he never met before. His name is Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), and he tells Ben that his girlfriend, Abilene (Crazy Stupid Love’s Lio Tipton), is dead. Here is the rub — Ben has no idea who he is talking about. Even more awkward, the hot blonde he embedded his plug-in with is lying beside him.
Who was Abilene? She is a woman he hooked up with twice and texted a handful of times that felt something for him. So, Ben travels to Texas to find out what happened here. He meets his “girlfriend’s” family. He finds out Abilene told her mother, Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), and grandmother (Louanne Stephens) all about Ben. She also had two sisters, Jasmine (Dove Cameron) and Paris (Isabella Amara), who could not be more different. A little brother, whom Ty affectionately calls “El Stupido,” but do not worry, the kid does not speak Spanish. That’s what he tells Ben, anyway. After the funeral, he is ready to leave, but Ty wants him to stay so they can find her killer. Ben takes him up on his offer and decides to make a podcast on his new adventure.
Novak’s script is darkly funny and combines big city cynicism and Ben’s moral ambiguity with a small-town noir where a close-knit community keeps terrible secrets. However, I will get right to the problem. Much of the film is uneven and forced. Novak is interested in the theme behind finding common ground between opposing groups. He forces the fish out of water film tropes that are far from subtle. His attitude towards small town people is less of a joke on him as it’s about New York City attitudes.
For example, Texas folks don’t know how coffee can be taken with cream, sugar, or neither. In another scene, this group cannot communicate why they would pick Whataburger instead of McDonald’s. When there is an eventual clash between Ben and Abilene’s family, Novak’s character comes across far more arrogant than needed. Lastly, the tradition of Texas lawmen has skipped a couple of generations. Simply put, small towns do not investigate murders with state or federal help and oversight.
Vengeance, though, hits its stride when the mystery behind Abilene’s demise is ratcheted up a notch with a threat to Ben’s life. The reveal is clever, and a character represents ideals from both sides, which is unusual. Some would say that is a fairy tale. A white whale that does not exist. Where that plot point ends up is the key behind Novak’s thought process. We live in a time where partisan politics do not exist, and there is no pretending anymore. All we can do is communicate, listen, and respect one another.
Yes, Vengeance is uneven, and the praise I have heard about how thoughtful and intelligent it is are woefully exaggerated (a podcaster in media is the new posh Columbo). Though Novak’s debut is self-assured, the third act will spark a thought-provoking conversation and is entertaining enough to be enjoyable. Even if the entire confounding experience leaves much to be desired.