“This just keeps getting bigger and bigger!”
Story: Ben Manalowitz is a jerk. The kind of guy that sleeps around and calls it living his truth, while not exactly talking to his partners about how he’s not monogamous. The kind of guy that’s so into his own ego trip he never once considers anything but how something can get him somewhere he wants to be. So when Ben finds out that Abilene Shaw, one of his hookups, has died, and her family believes him to be an important part of her life? He’s too interested in what people think of him to tell them the truth. Then he gets too interested in the idea of mining this tragedy for podcast fame, after her brother Ty tells Ben she was murdered. How can anything go wrong?
Genre I’d put it in: Who-and-Why-dunnits
Release Date: 2022
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Original, though the focus on Americana and “true crime” feels familiar in a comfy-couch kinda way
Gotta say: Vengeance is writer/performer B.J. Novak’s directorial debut, and he’s got the starring role in it too. Hey, the last comedian who figured he’d go serious with his director-type joints was Jordan Peele. No pressure though. Luckily, while Novak takes a different tack, genre-wise, he’s got as firm a grasp on the story he wants to tell (and the messages he wants to deliver) as Peele does. Bravo, dude.
Less than 10 minutes in, and I absolutely hated Ben. Doesn’t help that the opening scene has Ben and his BFF (played by an uncredited John Mayer) chatting about how cool and modern they are with their devil-may-care dating lifestyles. Ben’s friend gets real about the possibility of wanting someone “real” for a split-second, then they shake off their hidden truths and continue on. It’s a scathing indictment of the “Nice Guy” mentality, and the disposable nature of hookup culture not necessarily based on gender but on an individual’s apathy. In Ben’s world, iffy behavior is A Good Thing Actually, because it’s “honest”. It pulls off double-duty by being hilarious and gross at the same time. It’s a small taste of Novak’s way with dialogue, and how whipsmart this screenplay is throughout the film.
Opening credits roll to the tune of Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup”, which got me thinking Vengeance was going to be stereotype-ville. But while leaning into Ben’s stereotypical Hipster City Boy behavior, Novak flips the script, giving Ben’s prejudices the royal flush they deserve. Is that kind of a cliché nowadays? Sure. But the raw emotional heft of each comeuppance keeps things fresh. This is helped by casting the delightful Issa Rae as Eloise, Ben’s podcast editor/guru, who never misses a chance to take him down a peg when his aspirations get the better of him. The two have a repartee that’s both fun and believable, even though there’s zero sunshine and rainbows. This film is a drama, not a comedy, and while there are comedic moments, they’re typically at Ben’s expense, and cringey rather than hilarious. Novak did write for The Office, and that sharp, witty dialogue is here in full force.
The juxtaposition of Ben and Abilene Shaw’s family is amazing. Abilene’s family are welcoming as fuck to Ben, but he could give one. The Shaws are an open-hearted family, and Ben is just a douche out of water. The cast is absolutely incredible at selling their characters and life, including Ashton Kutcher as local music maestro Quentin Sellers, who Abilene used to visit on her quest to be a star. No, stop it. Kutcher can be good if given something to sink into, and Quentin is a layered character with plenty of facets to explore. More of this for Kutcher, please. And here I am, at the moment where I talk about how Texas is a character itself within this film. No, not Austin or any of the other big cities, but small-town Texas. Teeny-town Texas. It’s a look that very few folks get, and Novak makes it beautiful without airbrushing the problems small-town life can have.
The cluelessness of big city folks when it comes to Otherness is on display here, but in a way that calls it out without being, like, super-mean about it, y’know? It’s there, it’s obnoxious, but there are moments of pure cluelessness from Ben that temper his rampaging superiority. Of course, Ben falls in love with the area and the family and get sucked into the mystery. Heck, three-quarters of the way in and he’s eating Frito pie y’all! (Which is absolutely delicious by the way; you should try it.) And things really start to go off the rails.. or do they? Spoiler alert: they do. Hey, did’cha forget this was a murder mystery? Expect a few twists you’ll expect…and a few you won’t.
Insta-stardom, prejudice, addiction to whatever you got, social media and parasocial relationships, as well as the myths of cities vs small towns. Novak takes a look at all of this and blends it into one hell of a whodunit.. and a why-dunit. Vengeance feels like a mix of True Detective, Homecoming, and Friday Night Lights. If that sounds like an eclectic mix, it is. Yet with Vengeance, Novak spins all the plates, and delivers a film that will suck you in immediately. And you can bet the farm on that, y’all. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here dreaming about Whataburger.
#Protip: If you crave Frito Pie while watching this film, but don’t know exactly what’s up with that? Here’s a great recipe. Though forging your own path is recommended when it comes to what you put in there toppings-wise? I myself like to just cut the top off the bag instead of splitting the bag down the middle like this recipe “requires”. Easier, and less opportunity for a slob like me to spill all over myself. What?