Vengeance (Review) – More Smug Than It Is Satisfying

DIRECTOR: B.J. Novak

CAST: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Lio Tipton, Ashton Kutcher, Isabella Amara, Dove Cameron, J. Smith-Cameron, Eli Abrams Bickel, Issa Rae, Louanne Stephens, John Mayer, Clint Obenchain, Zach Villa

RUNNING TIME: 107 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A New York podcaster (Novak) travels to Texas to investigate a family murder…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Early on in Vengeance, protagonist Ben (B.J. Novak, also the film’s writer and director), a New York-based journalist, pitches his podcast magnum opus to producer Eloise (Issa Rae). “It’s about America,” he boasts, before proceeding to describe a yet-to-be-told tale to be found within the divide between the so-called “red” and “blue” states, but it soon becomes very clear that he, like many east-coast writers who are a bit too in love with the sound of their own voice, really has no idea what really goes on outside of his bubble.

Not only does this set up the journey that he is about to go on, but it also feels like Novak himself is warning the audience early on that, much like his own lead, he can’t quite find the right balance between sly social commentary, and smug condescension that plays into accepted stereotypes for the amusement of others. His film, therefore, lacks the kind of bite that he wants to aim for, and while it can often be amusing with its bright, if obvious, fish-out-of-water moments, Vengeance isn’t quite as slick or even as smart as it undoubtedly thinks it is.

Ben’s story begins properly when he suddenly receives a phone call from a stranger named Ty (Boyd Holbrook), who tearfully informs him that Ty’s sister, aspiring singer Abilene (Lio Tipton), has died of an apparent drug overdose. Thinking that she was Ben’s girlfriend (in reality, she was just someone that Ben hooked up with one time), Ty insists he travels to a backwater town in Texas for her funeral, where he meets the rest of Abilene’s mourning family. However, Ty has further reasons for dragging Ben into the middle of nowhere, for he believes that his sister was in fact murdered, and wants Ben to help him investigate her death and, if necessary, kill the person responsible. Ben suddenly has a lightbulb moment: this is the story of America that he wants to tell, and with Eloise’s approval he begins recording a podcast about Abilene’s possible murder, which includes diving deeper into the local community, spending time with her family, and showing his mostly liberal audience the everyday quirks of a staunchly conservative nation.

The irony is that Vengeance struggles the most when it tries to comment on the divide that Novak’s character wants to convey. While it is a dark comedy with aspects of crime thriller elements, meaning that certain ideas and portrayals will have a heightened sense about them, the film still manages to indulge in the very stereotypes that it ultimately attempts to subvert. The people in this Texan community, including the family that Ben stays with, are stereotypically conservative-minded: guns are brandished like fashion accessories, Confederate flags are flown at rodeos, almost everyone wears a Stetson and enlarged belt buckle, people wax nostalgic about the Battle of the Alamo as a triumph over the Mexican forces, going to the local Whataburger is a cherished family pastime, and the phrase “bless your heart” forms a daily part of their vocabulary (crucially, though, since perhaps it would have been low-hanging fruit, politics are almost never brought up). It confuses the message slightly, because while Novak is clearly trying to get across the notion that people are more than what everyone assumes them to be, he also plays into stereotypes that people often associate with Texan citizens. The same goes for when he tackles the more self-righteous and egotistical liberal-minded folk, who vapidly throw around phrases like “one-hundred percent” and look down upon those who are less intellectual than they are, but again it feels like although Novak is aware of these faults, he doesn’t really do much to subvert those expectations either. As a result, the film never feels quite sure of what it wants to say, or at least in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or superior.

The messages and their executions may be flawed, but when Vengeance does land a few good punches on certain characters and ideas, it can be fairly amusing. Novak, who on-screen just has a knack for playing smug and morally questionable yuppies (see also his break-out character in The Office), does a good job at making you often want to punch this prick, while still being interested enough in him to see his arc through to the end, and as a writer he can get some funny lines out of some exceptionally awkward situations that build on top of each other up to a point. There are plenty of interesting and likeable characters to keep your focus (including Ashton Kutcher as a mysterious record producer, who nearly walks away with the entire film), and when things turn violent, it can be quite brutally so.

If only Novak could stick the landing with what he wants to convey, then Vengeance would have really been something compelling instead of simply decent, if slightly smug about itself.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Vengeance is a darkly comedic thriller that sees writer-director-star B.J. Novak attempt to explore the division in America, but aside from some occasionally amusing moments he is unable to move past some condescending stereotypes that confuse his overall message.

Vengeance is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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