“Vengeance” is BJ Novak’s first near-perfect film – The Washington Post


(3.5 stars)

“Vengeance”—a black comedy about cultural arrogance, the opioid crisis, guns, storytelling and the need, well, to get even—marks the debut of writer, director, and producer B.J. Novak (who is best known as writer, director, producer, and troupe actor” the desk”). Calling Novak’s first auspicious feature wouldn’t be a mistake, but it’s more than that. “Revenge” is a clever, funny, and astonishingly poignant film on a slice of the American zeitgeist, one in which the divisions between and connections to citizens are highlighted. It’s fascinating threads, both exciting and entertaining, that might just surprise those unfamiliar with Novak’s bestselling children’s book, The Book Without Pictures.

Novak stars here, too, as journalist Ben Manalowitz, one-time New Yorker writer and podcaster for “This American Life”—”the American Moment,” with a Manhattan-centric vision of an upper country to rival the geographical myopia parodied by painter Saul Steinberg. In his famous 1976 cover of that magazine, “View of the world from 9th Street. When Ben gets a phone call from Abby Shaw’s brother – aspiring singer Ben has “tied up” several times, in his words – telling him she died of an OxyContin overdose and insisting – inexplicably to Ben – that Abby (short for Abilene) wanted to attend “Boyfriend” the funeral, and had no choice but to agree. Once Ben reluctantly travels to West Texas and tells brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), Ben that he believes Abby’s death was a murder and that the two must team up to violently avenge her, Ben collides With an idea, but only afterwards. He showed it to his in-house podcast editor (Issa Ray).

Ben will do some interviews and put together a story: perhaps not the kind of investigative show Tay would expect, but one that views Texans, and Abby (Leo Tipton, seen in mobile phone videos and recorded music shows), as symptoms of a deeper malaise. Tai calls this an acceptable compromise. “Once people on Reddit find out who the killer is, they will kill him for us,” he says. But all Ben really promised, in his cautious way, was: to find the person — or, as he carefully describes it, the “generalized societal force” — responsible for Abe’s death, and to “identify” her.

It’s a slippery undertaking, and suggests, for obvious reasons, that what follows will involve an unfair cartoon of American rural life and Shaws, including grandmother Carol (Loan Stevens), mom Sharon (J. Smith Cameron), sisters Paris and Kansas City (Isabella Amara) and Dove Cameron), and younger brother Mason, aka El Stopido (Eli Abrams Bickle).

But Novak is very clever about it, and if anyone here comes across badly, it’s Ben, who Novak is big enough and cynical enough to gently sneer at. The supporting cast comes off relatively easily, and includes a stellar performance by Ashton Kutcher as the brilliant and silver-toned Abby record producer, Quentin Sellers. Quentin is a sort of cowboy poet/philosopher who wears a 10-gallon hat and white embroidered suit that looks like something made by late country-western style stars. Nodi Cohen. Under Novak’s low-key guidance, Kutcher doesn’t push performance much. Like the narrative itself, which meanders when you expect it to meander, Quentin is full of surprises.

Ostensibly, “Revenge” is a murder mystery, with its share of Red herrings, a password-protected mobile phone belonging to victim and suspect #1: drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa), which also turns out to be something else unexpected.

If “revenge” has a weakness, it sometimes appears as written too little, for lack of a better word. Oftentimes, the characters speak in a way that sounds less like someone on a laptop keyboard: a little Ben Manalowitz and a little BJ Novak.

It’s a little evasion. This is a movie worth watching and hearing for its unpredictable insights. There’s a joke going on in the movie: Ben indicates his agreement, over and over, with the hyperbolic phrase “one hundred percent.” Is ‘Vengeance’ a flawless movie? No, but it’s 90% perfect.

R was found. in the theaters of the region. Contains vulgar language, drug abuse, and short violence. 107 min.

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