Mark Twain’s quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” comes to mind watching “Vengeance,” BJ Novak’s terrific feature directorial debut about a New York writer who inexplicably gets involved in a murder investigation in West Texas.
Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is a know-it-all Brooklyn hipster who overuses the phrase “100 percent.” One morning, he is awakened by a phone call from a stranger, Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), who tells him “the worst news he will ever hear”: Your girlfriend — Ty’s sister Abilene (Lio Tipson) — is dead. However, Ben is in bed with another girl at the time, and Abilene, was just one of Ben’s many hookups. Of course, Ty, in his grief, is not going to want to hear that, so Ben reluctantly goes to the funeral — where he is even asked to speak! — for a young dead girl he barely knew.
It would be easy to dismiss “Vengeance” for its unlikable hero and flimsy plotting at this point, but that would be a mistake. This film is just getting started and it unleashes some delightful surprises that upend expectations, while also making some profound and pretentious comments on life, America, and civilization as we know it.
The plot kicks into gear when Ty tells Ben that he believes his sister did not die of an overdose — she wouldn’t touch an aspirin! He wants Ben to help him find the killer and exact vengeance. Ben sees this as an opportunity to do a podcast for Eloise (Issa Rae), and he pitches the story as an “In Cold Blood”-like case study of the grieving family and — catnip podcast — a dead white girl. It’s an existential crime story and a portrait of America “struggling with a truth that is too hard to accept.”
Like “Only Murders in the Building,” “Vengeance” becomes hard to resist. Yes, it is a fish out of water story, where the clever New Yorker looks down on Middle America and the gun-toting Texans. But Abilene’s sister Paris (Isabella Amara) has read Chekhov — whom Ben references with a gun, and it going off — and Ben must sheepishly admit that he’t read the Russian playwright. Likewise, when Ben meets Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a local music producer, he is unexpectedly impressed by her man’s erudition, and how he can coax a performer to deliver her very best.
“Vengeance” is both clever and too clever as its characters express ideas about art and culture as well as humanity and hamburgers. The film is amusing puncturing smug self-important types, who are being mocked right alongside the Texans. And the crime-solving is fun, too, as Ben interacts with four different police departments — each passing the buck.
Yet Novak’s film also slyly seduces viewers with the same killing-with-kindness approach that Abilene’s family applies to Ben. They are likable people, who are more than the stereotypes that they lean into or subvert. When Ben tries to get the Shaws to define their love for Whataburger, and they can’t, he does not understand it. Then, he finally has one, and he can’t define it either. In one of the film’s best bits of absurdist humor, Ben is asked at a rodeo what he does, and when he tries to mansplain that he is a writer, not a rider, he is called a “condescending a**hole.”
Issa Rae as Eloise and BJ Novak as Ben Manalowitz in “Vengeance” (Patti Perret/Focus Features
“Vengeance” has fun with taking Ben down a peg or six even as he starts to appreciate his new environments and admits to enjoying Frito Pie. (He tells Eloise, it is a bag of Fritos, cut open, with chili poured over it and eaten out of the bag with a fork. She finds it gross.)
Novak also makes Ben likable when he has a nervous meeting with Sancholo (Zach Villa), the local drug dealer, about Abilene’s death. Their exchange is a highlight, as are Ben’s bedroom chats with El Stupido (Eli Bickel), Abilene’s younger brother who is afraid of ghosts. There is a disarming wit and wisdom in these conversations as well as the ones Ben has with Quentin. It is Quentin who tells Ben to “Listen to what is around you and repeat back what you hear.” Ben becomes more observant even if he doesn’t get smarter. He is mocked by a cop for noticing cowboy prints at the crime scene, but he does come to understand that line dancing is a form of “collective consciousness.”
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As his podcast clips are getting Eloise’s approval, “Vengeance” throws some curveballs that force Ben to climb his way out of the rabbit hole he has fallen into. This gives the film a little momentum, which it needs so as not to overstay its welcome. Watching Ben slowly piece together hard truths is gratifying, as is how things ultimately come together and get resolved.
The murder story is mostly an excuse for the culture-clash comedy, but it all does have a point. “Vengeance” is addressing issues of identity, myth, and cultural appropriation, but it is self-aware enough to call itself out as it is doing this very thing. Part of that is Novak’s script which is as smart as it is smartass.
But as a director, Novak wisely lets scenes play out and gives space to the other characters who all get great moments. The supporting cast are all pitch perfect, with Ashton Kutcher especially noteworthy in his role as a cosmopolitan cowboy.
“Vengeance” is as entertaining as it is offbeat, and it showcases Novak’s talents in front of and behind the camera well.
“Vengeance” is in theaters July 29. Watch the trailer via YouTube.
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