(2022) (B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook) (R)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Black Comedy: An aspiring writer travels from New York to rural Texas to investigate the death of one of his past casual flings with hopes of turning all of that into a true crime podcast.
Ben Manalowitz (B.J. NOVAK) is a writer who wants to examine the human condition in America via a podcast, something he pitches to Eloise (ISSA RAE), an executive in that industry. He gets the chance when he unexpectedly gets a call from Ty Shaw (BOYD HOLBROOK) who states that his sister, Abilene (LIO TIPTON), is dead and indicates she was Ben's girlfriend.
That's news to him, but when he realizes they casually hooked up in the past, he flies from New York to west Texas where he meets Ty. He doesn't believe the reports that his sister overdosed and instead is certain she was murdered, possibly by local drug dealer Sancholo (ZACH VILLA) and he wants Ben to help avenge her death.
Ben isn't crazy about that idea, but is regarding turning all of this into a true crime podcast. With Eloise on board, Ben goes to stay with Ty's family, including his sisters, Paris (ISABELLA AMARA) and Kansas City (DOVE CAMERON) their younger brother Mason, a.k.a. El Stupido (ELLI ABRAMS BICKEL), and their mother, Sharon (J. SMITH-CAMERON), and grandma, Carole (LOUANNE STEPHENS).
As Ben gets to know them and other locals, including enlightened record producer Quinten Sellers (ASHTON KUTCHER) who was working with Abilene, the writer turned podcaster begins to learn more about her as well as preconceived notions about those who live in rural Texas.
- OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I'm guessing it stems from a prehistoric need for survival, but many contemporary humans are hardwired to judge others via first impressions, snap judgments, and preconceived notions. After all, when life existed in a kill or be killed mode for thousands of years, such assessments came in handy. But that was then and nowadays it's obviously not needed as much as the vast majority of people aren't after you and what you possess.
But there's still the remote possibility they are, and with polarization and division growing at exponential rates -- especially in the U.S. -- more and more people are making assumptions about others based on nothing more than a gut instinct and externally induced paranoia and conspiracy mindsets.
That's the underlying premise of actor B.J. Novak's freshman big screen offering, "Vengeance," in which he also stars. Speaking of snap judgments, and based solely on the title, I made an assumption about what sort of film this was going to be, and boy was I wrong (up to a point). And that seems to be the point as Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a New York-based writer and aspiring podcaster who most -- viewers and upcoming characters he's about to meet -- assume is a left-leaning sort.
At a Big Apple rooftop party sipping cocktails, he and his buddy have a self-entitled philosophical discussion about their casual hookups with women. Later, with one such woman in his bed, he receives a call from a stranger (Boyd Holbrook) who sounds quite agitated and informs him this will be the worst call he's ever going to receive.
Is it a threat from an upset boyfriend or husband of one of those women? Or perhaps some sort of blackmail about such flings? No, Ben has just learned that his girlfriend is dead. The only problem is -- as already noted -- he doesn't have one, and complicating matters, he doesn't recognize the name, Abilene, that Ty Shaw is stating.
Quickly scrolling through his contacts, he finds her as Abbie, a past casual hookup. With his interest piqued by why this woman would have told her brother and others that Ben was her boyfriend, and perhaps wondering if he somehow, even remotely, had some indirect responsibility for her death, he flies to West Texas.
There, Ty informs him that he doesn't believe the official reports that Abilene died of a drug overdose, instead is certain she was murdered, and wants Ben's help in avenging her demise. The wants no part of that, but sees this as potential fodder for a podcast about the human condition and pitches that to industry veteran Eloise (Issa Rae) who likes the "who killed the white girl" true crime angle.
Ben then sets out to interview the rest of the dead girl's family -- siblings Paris (Isabella Amara), Kansas City (Dove Cameron) and "El Stupido" (Elli Abrams Bickell), and their mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), and grandmother Carole (Louanne Stephens) -- as well as others who knew her. Those range from the prime suspect, drug dealer Santoro (Zach Villa), to enlightened record producer Quinten Sellers (Ashton Kutcher) who not only recorded Abilene recently, but also gets philosophical with Ben about the latter's preconceived notion about Texans, both native and transplants like himself.
What follows is a black comedy about such matters, and I found that it's one that hits the nail on the head more often than not and similarly challenges the viewer's assumptions along the way. With good performances across the board and a terrific screenplay by Novak, I was engaged from start to finish.
While the story is somewhat formulaic -- the outsider finds the locals to be different than he imagined and then bonds with them only to have a third act falling out -- I was never sure where things were ultimately headed and certainly didn't see the conclusion coming, mainly, natch, because of how I viewed some of the characters.
Smart and spot-on, and entertaining and occasionally touching while being just that, "Vengeance" ends up being something entirely different than I imagined -- until it isn't. It rates as a 7 out of 10.
Posted July 29, 2022
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