James Berardinelli review - *** out of ****
Vengeance tries for something different and succeeds. But, although screenwriter/director B.J. Novak swings for the fences, he doesn’t quite get the ball out of the park. This Blumhouse production marries fish-out-of-water elements with some philosophical musings and offbeat characters that might remind viewers of (Robert) Altman lite. The ending feels a little forced, as if the filmmakers felt that not providing some kind of punch might disappoint viewers, but there are enough little pleasures along the way to more than compensate.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a New York-based podcaster who is looking for the perfect subject when one falls into his lap. He is contacted by Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), the brother of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), a woman with whom Ben once had a brief fling. The two haven’t seen one another for a while, both having moved on to other bed partners, and it wasn’t serious in the first place. Somehow, however, Ty and his family believe that Ben was Abby’s serious boyfriend. Sobbing over the phone, Ty informs Ben that Abby is dead. Initially, the nonplused podcaster tries to deny everything but then it dawns on him that by playing this role, he might be able to produce something special. It gets better when Ben arrives on the ground in Texas and learns that Ty thinks Abby was murdered (even though the official cause of death was an accidental overdose), so the podcast-in-progress, dubbed “Dead White Girl,” becomes an investigation.
The murder mystery plays a distant second to the people populating Ben’s narrative. He arrives in Texas with a series of preconceived notions and stereotypes and, although some are validated, most are spectacularly exploded. And the more he learns about Abby, the more he wonders about this woman who briefly crossed his path. He comes to know the members of her family – Ty; her mother, Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron); her plain-spoken grandmother (Melissa Chambers); and her sisters and younger brother – as more than “colorful” characters used to fill in the creases of his podcast. He wonders at his own role as an outsider worming his way into the family’s confidence in order to exploit their grief. His editor, Eloise (Issa Rae), increasingly loves the material he sends her but with every new clip, Ben feels less upbeat about what he’s achieving.
One of the best features of Vengeance is the way it manages to defy expectations both in terms of narrative trajectory and character development. Novak (whose primary claim to success is to have starred in The Office, while also writing and directing a few episodes) uses stereotypes as the foundation of many of the characters but allows them to grow in ways that defy expectations. Likewise, his “fish out of water” scenario never becomes lazy or predictable. There are some memorable oddball situations such as one in which Ben tries to get the clan to explain to him what’s so special about the WhatABurger fast food entrees beyond their ready availability.
One of the most offbeat peripheral characters is record producer Quentin Sellers, who’s played by Ashton Kutcher in full charismatic sleazeball mode. Sellers worked with Abby and has a compelling philosophy about the impermanence of life’s unrecorded moments. It’s a perfect explanation for the popularity of social media and why so many people are driven to do crazy things in pursuit of “fame.” Yet, while popularity may be fleeting, those clips, archived online, have a permanence that may outlive the people who made them. In the end, Sellers opines, all that remains of any of us are our recorded moments. Everything else fades away.
Vengeance doesn’t have much to do with vengeance. The title is more of a tease than a reflection of the story. That, coupled with the involvement of Blumhouse, might fool some viewers into expecting something darker, faster-paced, and action-oriented. Toward the end, Novak decides that he can’t leave things ambiguous or unresolved, which might have been a more honest way to go. (John Sayles tried that with Limbo and look where it got him.) The ending is Vengeance’s weakest aspect, although even that has a certain karmic justice to how it plays out.
Vengeance doesn’t break new ground or do anything staggeringly original but it doesn’t feel like it was churned out by someone seeking blockbuster returns. It’s the kind of movie that came out with regularity around the turn of the century but has become increasingly rare. Flawed but fresh, Novak’s feature debut got me to laugh with him and at him while simultaneously taking the story seriously and becoming involved in all its quirks and twists.