By: Jeff Ching
Despite the title, Vengeance is really not a revenge movie (though revenge is part of the plot), and it’s especially not an action movie. Actually, it’s much better and smarter than what you’d expect. It’s a very ambitious film that attempts many things: it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy with a dark sense of humour, a murder mystery, it’s satirical, it’s philosophical. The movie has a lot to say about the current state of America and humanity in general. Vengeance is also one of the funniest movies of the year.
Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is a podcaster who lives in New York City. The movie opens with a hilarious dialogue between him and a fellow swinger at a fancy New York City bar, played by John Mayer. They’re all about one-night stands, and they look down on outdated constructs such as monogamy. Mayer says that maybe one day when he gets older, he can finally settle down…with just three girls. This scene would fit perfectly in the movie Swingers. Speaking of that, I wouldn’t mind a Swingers remake in this current time period with B.J Novak, and John Mayer playing these exact characters. This intro sets the tone for the film’s comedy. It also provides good insight into Ben’s character.
One morning, as Ben’s in bed with a random hook-up, he receives a phone call, letting him know that his girlfriend has died of a drug overdose and the grieving brother asks him to attend the funeral in Texas. Which girlfriend?!?! As he hears the name Abilene, he quickly scrolls through his phone to remind him who this girl is. Her family believes their relationship was far more serious than it really was.
Why Ben would fly all the way to Texas for a funeral of a girl he barely remembers and not make up some sort of excuse (like COVID?), or even come clean about the nature of their relationship is a bit contrived, but he finds his way to Texas. He’s asked to deliver a eulogy. He stumbles, and stalls for time to think of something. He then spots a guitar in her picture, so he mentions that she loved music – silence. He follows up with, “And she will always be a song in our hearts.” This guy is good.
As he gets into the car with the grief-stricken older brother Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), he tells Ben that he knows for a fact that his sister didn’t die of a drug overdose – she was murdered. He asks Ben to help him avenge her death. Ben is not a “revenge-y” kind of guy, but when he realizes that this could make a story for his podcast, he decides to stick around and live with Abeline’s family until his podcast is finished. It will be called, “Dead White Girl.” It may seem tone deaf for him to stick around and exploit a family’s grief for his own career advancement, but he thinks his podcast will be a masterful work of art.
The strongest aspect of the movie, which gets the most comedic milage, is definitely the fish-out-of-water aspect. Ben, a rich liberal New Yorker trying his best to fit in with a conservative family that lives In The Middle of Nowhere, TX generates Vengeance’s best comedy. Abeline’s family are such colourful characters. At times stereotypical? Perhaps. Does a 12-year-old boy approaching Ben asking for his help to unjam his loaded pistol seem like a Texas stereotype? Maybe. Or maybe I’d expect that more from Florida. Back on topic.
The clash between the left and right is so funny, but respectful. Especially today with the division and hatred between the blue states and red states, it’s nice to have a comedy like this where shots are taken at both sides. The Hunt is another movie that tried this, but the comedy writing was grade school humour in comparison to Vengeance.
The cliché of the city slicker going to a small town and falling in love with the small-town charm and finding himself is well-trodden territory, but it feels organic in Vengeance. Abeline’s family truly accept Ben as part of their clan, and he goes from mocking their views to embracing their differences. The bond is beautifully done, and their ideological differences don’t matter; they’re all just human beings trying to live their best lives. I could have watched hours and hours of their interactions.
And then there’s that scene when Ashton Kutcher (Jobs) shows up and…where the hell did this acting come from? I’ve always seen him as a mediocre performer, but here…he wasn’t just good – he was mind-blowingly good. All of a sudden, I was transported into a Richard Linklater movie, with Ashton Kutcher delivering perhaps some of the most poetic monologues I’ve ever heard.
B.J. Novak (who also wrote and directed Vengeance) gets the most laughs, but he nails the dramatic beats as well. As he watches videos and learns more about his “girlfriend”, he slowly grows to love the girl he maybe should have gotten to know better. Issa Rae (Little) plays his boss and, while I’m also unfamiliar with her work, she is very charismatic and likeable. Every phone call between her and Novak has really good comedic chemistry. I get the sense that the two actors are perhaps friends in real life and, as a result, their interactions just feel so genuine. Let’s not forget Abeline’s whole family: her brothers, sisters, mother and grandmother – they’re all just so natural. The casting of this movie is immaculate.
The weakest link of Vengeance is its murder mystery. It’s underwhelming. I remember suspecting in my head, “I hope they don’t go with ‘so and so’” as the big reveal – and then I was right. I wonder if Novak thought of leaving the mystery to be ambiguous, but then just got nervous and felt like he needed closure. I thought about a great dark comedy – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is quite a lot darker than Vengeance, but just as funny. Anyways, I liked how Three Billboards… took an open-ended approach; the mystery is kind of irrelevant and the ambiguous ending worked. Vengeance could’ve gotten away with a similar approach, considering the whodunnit isn’t that compelling and doesn’t necessarily require answers.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on B.J Novak’s mind. He takes a big swing by trying to include as much story coverage as he can in Vengeance. Does he sometimes overreach? Perhaps, but I will never fault a movie or its filmmaker for ambition. And, I learned a few things I never really thought about before watching this movie. Many people have been to a Six Flags amusement park, but has anyone actually stopped to ask what those six flags represent? Vengeance gives quite an insightful reveal on that.
I have no familiarity with B.J Novak (people know him from The Mindy Project and the American version of The Office – both shows I don’t watch). Considering this is his first movie, his filmmaking career is off to a great start. But seriously, B.J., call up John Mayer. I’m not one for remakes, but I think that Swingers remake could be great.
Final rating: **** (out of 5)
Read more of Jeff Ching’s thoughts on film at The Ching of Comedy’s blog.