Comedy whodunits have been making something of a comeback in recent years but B.J. Novak spices things up in Vengeance.
Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is writer for the New Yorker and aspires to record a podcast about America. Only his boss, Eloise (Issa Rae), shoots down his initial pitch for American Moment. And then his girlfriend dies–only she was not his girlfriend but her family thinks she was. The two may have hooked up a few times but their relationship was nothing more. Next thing you know, Ben flies down to Texas and spends some time with Abilene Shaw’s (Lio Tipton) family.
Abilene’s brother, Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), wants to go after the killers. Ben isn’t really on board with Ty’s methods but he believes the story makes for a good podcast. A true crime story about another dead white girl would draw a lot of ears, right? Of course, getting to the root of her death is easier said than done–from the outside looking in, it’s nothing more than a drug overdose. That being said, it shows why we need to continue fighting the opioid epidemic. This is where I recommend watching Dopesick on Hulu if you haven’t done so already. In any event, Eloise produces the podcast from afar while providing notes and sending Ben some recording equipment. The script really dives into the hilarity of it all when it comes to law enforcement.
Ben–who personifies Novak’s undesirable traits–meets all sorts of characters throughout his stay, including music producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Meanwhile, he’s staying for a few weeks with Abby’s Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), little brother El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel) and Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens). At the end of the day, this really is a fish-out-of-water film because Ben stands out like a needle in a haystack. I mean, where else would you place a New York intellectual but in Texas?!? It’s one thing to make appearances in Austin for SXSW but once you get elsewhere in Texas, it’s like being in another country. I wouldn’t want to spotlight Texas right now with all of their attacks on rights but that’s just me.
In some ways, this is a film that plays on classic film tropes: falling in love with a dead girl. Had Ben done a better job, would Abilene have still been alive? This is something to ponder in the social media era even if The Office star approaches it from a male gaze.
Novak delivers one of the smartest screenplays of the year with this black comedy. It’s a solid feature directorial debut, too, with just the right blend of comedy and thriller. Even though the film is set in Texas, it was shot completely on location in Albuquerque and Artesia, New Mexico. There are some Jewish jokes where one has to walk a very fine line. While it doesn’t come out of Novak’s mouth in the film, he’s the one who penned it and I was falling out of my seat laughing. You’ll know it when you see it (hint). There’s also a mention in the film about Six Flags. After watching this film, you’re probably going to find yourself wishing that they would rebrand to a name that has nothing to do with the Confederate flag.
Vengeance is the kind of black comedy that would make the Coen brothers proud. B.J. Novak could very well become the next great Jewish filmmaker with regards to this sort of storytelling. Personally speaking, I look forward to seeing what he does next.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: B.J. Novak
CAST: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara, with Issa Rae and Ashton Kutcher
Focus Features will release Vengeance in theaters on June 29, 2022. Grade: 4.5/5
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