Mark Twain’s quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” comes to mind when watching “Vengeance,” BJ Novak’s terrific feature debut about a New York writer who is inexplicably embroiled in a murder investigation in West Texas.
Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is a know-it-all Brooklyn hipster who abuses the phrase “100%.” 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 encounters. Of course, Ty, in his grief, won’t want to hear this, so Ben reluctantly goes to the funeral – where he’s even asked to speak! — for a dead girl he barely knew.
It would be easy to dismiss “Vengeance” for its unlikable hero and flimsy plot at this point, but that would be a mistake. This movie is just getting started, and it’s got some delightful surprises in store that upend expectations, while making deep and pretentious commentary about life, America, and civilization as we know it.
The plot begins when Ty tells Ben that he thinks his sister didn’t die of an overdose – she wouldn’t touch an aspirin! He wants Ben to help him find the killer and get revenge. Ben sees this as an opportunity to do a podcast for Eloise (Issa Rae), and he pitches the story as an “In Cold Blood” type case study of the grieving family and – catnip podcast – a dead white girl. It’s a story of existential crime and a portrait of America “struggling with a truth too hard to accept.”
Like “Only Murders in the Building”, “Vengeance” becomes hard to resist. Yes, it’s a fish out of water story, where smart New Yorkers despise Central America and gun-toting Texans. But Abilene’s sister Paris (Isabella Amara) has read Chekhov — which Ben refers to with a gun, and it blows — and Ben has to shyly admit he hasn’t read the Russian playwright. Likewise, when Ben meets Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a local music producer, he is unexpectedly impressed by the man’s scholarship and how he can persuade a performer to give him the best.
“Vengeance” is both smart and over-smart as its characters express ideas about art and culture as well as humanity and hamburgers. The movie is fun to punch out the smug, smug types, who make fun of Texans. And crime solving is also fun, as Ben interacts with four different police departments, each passing the buck.
Yet Novak’s film also slyly seduces viewers with the same kill-with-kindness approach that Abilene’s family applies to Ben. They are likeable people, who are more than the stereotypes they lean into or subvert. When Ben tries to get the Shaws to define their love for Whataburger, and they can’t, he doesn’t get it. Then, he finally has one, and can’t define it either. In one of the film’s best bits of absurd humor, Ben is asked at a rodeo what he does, and when he tries to demonstrate that he’s a writer, not a rider, he’s called a “condescending hole”.
Issa Rae as Eloise and BJ Novak as Ben Manalowitz in “Vengeance” (Patti Perret/Focus Features
“Vengeance” has fun knocking Ben down a notch or six even as he begins to appreciate his new surroundings and admits to loving Frito Pie. (He tells Eloise it’s a bag of Fritos, cut open, with chilli poured over it and eaten out of the bag with a fork. She finds it disgusting.)
Novak also makes Ben sympathetic when he has a nervous encounter with Sancholo (Zach Villa), the local drug dealer, over Abilene’s death. Their exchange is a highlight, as are the conversations in Ben’s room with El Stupido (Eli Bickel), Abilene’s younger brother who is afraid of ghosts. There is a disarming wit and wisdom to these conversations as well as those Ben has with Quentin. It is Quentin who says to Ben: “Listen to what surrounds you and repeat what you hear. Ben becomes more observant even if he doesn’t become smarter. He is mocked by a cop for noticing cowboy footprints at the crime scene, but he comes to realize that line dancing is a form of “collective consciousness”.
Want a daily recap of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
As his podcast clips get Eloise’s approval, “Vengeance” throws curveballs that force Ben out of the rabbit hole he’s fallen down. This gives the film a bit of momentum, which it needs to not overstay its welcome. Watching Ben slowly piece together hard truths is rewarding, as is how things eventually come together and resolve.
The murder story is mostly an excuse for culture shock comedy, but it all makes sense. “Vengeance” tackles issues of identity, myth, and cultural appropriation, but it’s self-aware enough to call itself out when it does just that. Part of that is Novak’s script which is as clever as it is clever.
But as director, Novak wisely lets the scenes unfold and gives space to the other characters who all have great moments. The supporting cast are all spot on, with Ashton Kutcher particularly notable in his role as the cosmopolitan cowboy.
“Vengeance” is as entertaining as it is quirky, and it showcases Novak’s talents well in front of and behind the camera.
“Vengeance” hits theaters July 29. Watch a trailer via YouTube.
“The Office” – adjacent floors