The scattershot new media satire “Vengeance” might have been merely a toothless provocation replete with both-sides false equivalences were it not so well-scripted and well-directed on a scene-to-scene basis.
This post-truth black comedy, about a wannabe podcaster who investigates the death of a fair-weather romantic partner, benefits from writer-director B.J. Novak’s experience and command of sitcom-style humor. Novak also plays Ben, the smarmy, if basically sympathetic lead, but he fares much better behind the camera.
There’s consequently a genuine playfulness and appreciable back-and-forth rhythm in even the most obnoxious and played-out comedic routines, like an introductory scene where presumptuous New Yorker magazine writer Ben commiserates with John (John Mayer) about hooking up with random women. They frequently complement each other’s shallow talking points with “100%,” which gives a little snap to an otherwise unpleasant and self-satisfied parody of unpleasant and self-satisfied bright young things.
Then again, “Vengeance” also reeks of both-sides waffling, the kind that suggests Novak wants to condemn true-crime podcasts while also pandering to an ideal audience — one that’s aware of their ethical quandaries but still listens to them (or just can’t escape the social orbit of people who do). Novak’s very careful to bookend the movie as a story about the privilege of having a take to get ahead. But “Vengeance” mostly concerns Ben’s attempts at ingratiating himself to the West Texas community and family members that knew Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton, “Why Women Kill”), a mysteriously deceased musician and one of Ben’s many frivolous conquests.
Ben’s investigation really concerns his need to turn his interactions with Abilene’s loved ones into a podcast-ready narrative, one that will first ingratiate him to high-powered podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae) and then propel him on to further stardom. A vacant but well-blocked and well-paced comedy of manners ensues once Ben starts questioning Abilene’s podunk family members, including Ty (Boyd Holbrook), her conspiracy-minded good ol’ boy brother, and Kansas City (Dove Cameron, “Schmigadoon!”), her vain would-be influencer younger sister.
A lot of self-loathing and finger-pointing dialogue will eventually lead viewers back to tsk-tsking Ben for his guileless opportunism and go-with-the-flow insensitivity. Nevertheless, much of the movie feels like a shooting gallery whose primary targets are corn-pone protagonists with names like Kansas City and El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel), the latter being Abilene’s oafish, but amiable kid brother. These goofy personalities aren’t the main villains of Ben’s story, but they’re characterized with the same broad strokes that Novak’s story purportedly condemns.
Ben’s city-slicker-out-of-water narrative gets only mildly complicated by the eloquence and folksy wisdom of Texas locals like Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a philosophically-minded small-time record producer who used to work with Abilene. Quentin’s real motives should be obvious from the jump, though there are also a number of other signs that Novak really wants viewers to see Texas as more than just a collection of stereotypes and tics that he still extensively uses for effect. Ben mistrusts Ty’s theory regarding his sister’s death: Ty thinks she was murdered while the indifferent local police have written her death off as an accidental overdose. But that theory eventually starts to seem more plausible as everybody, including shady prime suspect Sancholo (Zach Villa, “American Horror Story”), suggests that Abilene wasn’t a drug user.
Ben’s interview with Sancholo– conducted in a dimly lit room, surrounded by a bunch of beefy-looking Tex-Mex heavies — serves as a tipping point for Ben’s narrative: he realizes that he’s unwittingly become more deeply invested in these “characters” — as he frequently calls them — than he realized. Sancholo also provides the surest proof to Novak’s viewers that it’s OK to laugh at stock types and the freighted assumptions that accompany their behavior. Because even Sancholo, an aspiring thug who hopes the rumor that he killed Abilene will somehow ingratiate him to the local drug cartels, acts selfishly without knowing what’s really going on.
Ben’s encounter with Sancholo also unintentionally reveals the fundamental shallowness of Novak’s story since it suggests that, if a POC also uses stereotypes to promote themselves, then there must be more depth to Novak’s story beyond pseudo-ambiguous criticisms of true-crime podcasts.
Novak’s greatest saving grace as a director tends to be his trust and investment in his fellow cast members, who almost make you want to care about Abilene’s family members. They never really act in a way that suggests that there’s much more to them beyond Ben’s initial assessment, like when they fawn over Whataburger and then get upset with Ben when he presses them to explain why. But Novak’s ensemble cast does a lot with a little, including Kutcher, who exudes an oily charm that suits Quentin’s slick and well-honed repartee.
“Vengeance” tellingly ends with a shocking act of violence involving Quentin; it’s simultaneously the most exciting and inane part of the movie. Novak also does a mostly good job of baiting viewers before ham-handed dialogue and over-heated plot twists reveal the true meaning of “Vengeance.” Whether that’s enough for viewers ultimately depends on how badly viewers they want to be taken in.
“Vengeance” opens in US theaters on July 29.