Ben Manalowitz, who writes for The New Yorker (played by BJ Novak, who has been published on the pages), wants to break through with podcasting. “Not every white person in America needs a podcast,” someone tells him, but this white man sees the platform as a perfect stage for his ambitions and big thoughts about America.
Ben has a theory about the divided, disaffected state of the country. Eloise (Issa Rae), a receptive, well-connected, slightly skeptical producer, tells him he needs a story. Their brief debate on the relative merits of theories and stories dispels a conundrum that journalists and other writers will be familiar with. Are we looking for facts or ideas? Characters or historical forces? Generalities or specifics? These questions are key to “Vengeance,” which tries to get it two ways by reverse-engineering its story of the betrayal of storytelling from a theory about the danger of theorizing.
Novak, who wrote and directed the film, has his own thoughts on America, more subtle than Ben’s, but not necessarily more convincing. ‘Vengeance’, while serious, thoughtful and at times quite funny, shows how difficult it can be to turn political polarization and animosity between cultures and wars into a believable story. Its efforts should not be dismissed, even if it is ultimately too smart for its own good, and perhaps not as smart as it thinks it is.
The same can be said about Ben, who is also, at least at the beginning of the film, the subject of Novak’s most brutal, knowing satire. We first meet him at a party on a patio overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, where he and a friend concoct elaborate philosophical justifications for their cynical, transactional approach to sex and romance. The way Ben intellectualizes his own superficiality feels so precise—and so repulsive—that one wonders if the film can redeem him enough to make another 90 minutes in his company anything but insufferable.
But what looks like yet another self-conscious New York-centric satire of white male media elite rights turns into something else. A few other things actually, including a fish-out-of-water comedy and a twisted detective story, with Ben as both fish and gumshoe.
A late-night phone call sends him to West Texas, where an aspiring singer he’s interacted with several times in New York has been found dead under a pump jack in an oil field. Ben knew her as Abby, although he may not have known it was short for Abilene. (She is played by Lio Tipton in terrifying, posthumously watched video clips.) Ben’s number was on her cell phone, and her family has the impression that he was the love of her life.
Ben flies to the funeral, where he is welcomed into Abilene’s large family in Texas. There are two sisters (Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron) also named after towns, a no-nonsense mom (J. Smith-Cameron), a salty granny (Louanne Stephens, who also played a Texas granny on “Friday Night Lights”) and two brothers, the youngest of whom (Eli Abrams Bickel) answers to El Stupido.
The elder, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), drags Ben into the plan that gives the film its title and momentum. Ty is convinced that Abilene’s death was the result of a shadowy, nefarious conspiracy, and that her killers need to be dealt with. In his feverish wanderings, Ben hears a chance at audio gold. Real crime. A first-person meditation on American Life. An investigation into the nature of storytelling and the smoothness of the truth. Eloise agrees – “a dead white girl: the holy grail of podcasting” – and sends him the necessary recording equipment.
The best part of “Vengeance” is the middle, where Novak humanizes cultural stereotypes – including Ben himself – without losing his sense of humor. It turns out that people are complicated, and they can surprise you. This is the kind of insight that is easily oversold because it relies on the assumption that the public thinks otherwise. But Ben’s superficial self-awareness gives way to active curiosity (he’s a writer, after all), and he begins to feel genuine tenderness for Ty, Grandma, and the rest. He also meets other local characters who knew Abilene who are not who they appear to be, including a drug dealer (Zach Villa) and a mystical record producer (Ashton Kutcher).
For a while, smooth sociology and easy plotting are taking a back seat to sharp, low-key humanistic comedy. Novak, who has published a collection of short stories and a children’s book, is an adept writer and (as we know from “The Office”) an agile ensemble player. A sitcom version of “Vengeance,” with Ben embedded in Abilene’s hometown, could be worth a few seasons on a streaming platform, and for about 45 minutes, the movie functions as a pretty good pilot for that.
Ben develops an appreciation for Whataburger and Frito pie, learns a hard lesson about college football fandom, and discovers that rural red-states and urban blue-states share certain aspirations (fame, self-expression) and cultural reference points (Anton Chekhov, Liam Neeson) as they out of sync in other cases. It’s in dealing – or not – with those matters that “Vengeance” becomes reticent and skittish. The gun culture and the opioid crisis receive fleeting attention, but the film above all wishes to remove the sand in the gears of the American experiment.
No one has much to say about politics, race, religion, immigration or anything else that we are always fighting about. Perhaps Novak’s point is that, face to face and heart to heart, we don’t fight as much as our social media avatars and elected representatives. That is a reassuring idea, but the sophisticated theory and busy storytelling of this film cannot disguise the essential banality.
Rated R. Guns, drugs and digital audio. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theatres.