Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Director: B.J. Novak
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Ashton Kucher, Issa Rae, and B.J. Novak
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
Available in theatrical release
“Vengeance” goes too far. But isn’t that the nature of such a negative psychological and emotional state?
This film starts as a quirky but relatable, dark comedy and then nearly collapses in its closing moments. But getting there is fun.
In his feature directing debut, “The Office” alum B.J. Novak focuses on the exploitative nature of pop culture’s thirst for revenge and accountability. And as an inventive, familiar plot device, he structures his film, which he also wrote, around the process of creating a podcast. And his complex, off-beat story gets a big boost from the unusual casting of Boyd Holbrook and Ashton Kutcher.
In the movie, shallow NYC journalist Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is intrigued by an out-of-the-blue middle of the call from grieving Texan Ty Shaw. Ty is heartbroken by the untimely death of his beautiful sister Abilene. Immediately, sensing a news story, Ben wracks his brain. Who is Abilene? Searching his phone contacts, he finds her, one of his many casual hookups.
Ty shares that Abilene told her family in her rural Texas hometown that Ben was the love of her life, her boyfriend. Thinking there might be something worth writing about, Ben flies to Texas to attend the funeral. Once there, Ty reveals he believes Abilene was murdered, and it’s up to them to get revenge and justice.
Ty plainly explains that Texas justice involves the expert use of a gun which he has on hand. The one responsible for the crime will receive an unhealthy dose of lead. And no self-respecting Texas calls 911 for help.
Ben instantly recoils, only to circle back once he successfully pitches the story as a podcast to high-powered producer Eloise (HBO’s “Insecure” star/creator Issa Rae). Thinking that this investigation could take his career from writing words to also saying them, Ben agrees to assist Ty, but only by exposing the wrongdoing through the podcast format.
Ben crashes with Ty’s family. Ty’s mother is a humble homemaker, his two sisters are surface-level children, and his grandmother is a tell-it-like-it-is elderly possibly suffering from early stages of dementia. And since he’s a well-educated, informed member of the intellectual class, he sees Ty’s household members as simpletons. These dimwits should make for great color on his show.
Told from Ben’s perspective, the film paints the community as stereotypically Texan as a Northerner might expect. But the reality is anything but how Ben initially lenses it.
As the investigation proceeds, Ben finds the townsfolk unexpectedly accommodating. Many go on the record to talk about Abilene and her death. However, in one off-the-record conversation with the town’s reported drug kingpin, the situation is discovered to be far more intricate than initially believed. There are people in this place with ideas not too different than those shared by his detached hipster colleagues in the big city.
Getting to the bottom of the mystery causes Ben to visit music producer Quentin Sellers (an excellent Ashton Kutcher). In an extended introduction, Ben watches Sellers inspire a young singer with sage, almost New Age philosophy. The words drolly delivered with a relaxed, strangely Southern drawl impact the teen artist and surprise Ben.
Later, Sellers continues to impress by demonstrating his well-read education with an impossibly convoluted but fascinating outlook on life. Of course, Ben thinks Sellers to be a man who shares his intellectual prowess and pursuits. But what in the world is he doing in such an isolated place?
Ben’s recordings are sent almost in real-time to Eloise back in the Big Apple. She’s thrilled by what he’s uncovering and encourages him to continue. Because Ben’s ambitions are to exploit Abilene’s story for personal gain, Ben embraces the more ludicrous aspects of the narrative. Could Abilene’s drug overdose have been murder?
With his writing and directing, Novak sets up an eclectic world inhabited by idiosyncratic characters. But by introducing Ben as a womanizing, arrogant social climber willing to do anything for the story that will enhance his career, it’s hard to engage with Ben meaningfully. He’s not a dependable narrator. This tainted approach is both a blessing and a curse carried to unfortunate extremes.
As Ty, Holbrook is entertaining as the loud-mouthed country boy who sets Ben on his dangerous revenge-filled journey. Like most everyone in this movie, Ty is hiding his authentic side. Listen closely to his words; the truth is revealed between the lines.
Kutcher is a clear standout as the enigmatic record producer Sellers. He’s given long monologues that are almost too multifarious, too darned wordy to be unraveled. Of course, this hopeless confusion is intended, with some solid writing in Sellers’ scenes with Ben.
What doesn’t quite work in Novak’s film are some clumsy sequences that awkwardly introduce the ensemble cast of weird characters. It’s problematic as some meant-to-be humorous exchanges are leaden and should have been cut in favor of more context to the crime procedural.
And despite the exciting casting decisions and good performances by Kutcher and Holbrook, “Vengeance” is an uneven movie that artificially tries to keep viewers off-balance. It wants to be a dark comedy within the familiar fish-out-water plot. At times, we are reminded of something like the classic “My Cousin Vinny” but without a good-natured tone.
Ultimately, Novak’s script is too clever by half. I immediately understood his metaphoric ambitions—the pendulum has swung, as seeing conspiracies everywhere keeps the facts from being uncovered. And Novak convincingly sends Ben down a rabbit hole, but by reaching closer and closer to the bottom, the film diverts in an inexplicable direction as it concludes. The giant leap in logic may elicit groans from some viewers.
Regardless of my quibbles, “Vengeance” is a good start for Novak, whose voice should be better targeted in his next outing. Hopefully, his next film will find a place for Kutcher, who needs a vehicle that takes advantage of untapped talent.