Having watched B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance,” his directorial and feature-film writing debut, I can tell you two things about him — he’s very smart and has a lot on his mind.
Razor sharp in its examination of our country’s cultural divide, Novak’s film sets out to explain why those in the blue and red states see each other in such stark, different lights.
An intriguing modern noir mystery is the medicine he uses to make this bit of social commentary go down, and it proves to be just as entertaining as his diatribes are thought-provoking.
Novak is Ben, a vacuous New York City reporter who’s muddling along, trying to hit it big in the world of podcasting.
He kills his nighttime hours by hooking up with women for one-night stands, those who spark his interest perhaps worthy of a date.
This approach comes back to haunt him when he gets a phone call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), the brother of Abilene (Lio Tipton), one of Ben’s occasional companions. Seems she’s been murdered while visiting her hometown in Texas.
Her family thinks their relationship is more serious than it was, and out of guilt, Ben agrees to attend her funeral.
The reason behind Ben’s visit is illogical and one of the few missteps in Novak’s script. However, it’s required so he can tackle the issues on his agenda, which he does with incredible wit and intelligence.
The culture shock Ben goes through on his arrival is hilarious, as he’s forced to contend with rodeos, fast-food cuisine and conservative thinking, all of which are alien to him.
Granted, this fish-out-of-water scenario is obvious, and there are times when you can tell Novak has little respect for his targets.
There’s more at play here than gentle ribbing about the Texans’ way of life, as a sense of ridicule and disdain are as obvious as Novak’s politics.
The jokes he makes at their expense are like shooting fish in a barrel. Yet there’s no denying the modicum of truth they hold or the laughter they produce.
As Ben attempts to understand how and why the divide in our country has developed, Novak is able to voice his own theories, the most compelling being that we’ve become fragmented not by politics but the inequality of opportunity.
This, he posits, leads to a despondency in those who’ve been denied, leaving them susceptible to those who would manipulate and prey on their ignorance and lack of opportunity.
He concludes that those on the other side aren’t necessarily stupid, simply vulnerable and misinformed.
While this may be no great revelation, Novak manages to underscore this beautifully as his portrayal of Ty, Abilene and their family softens, a sense of understanding if not acceptance being established.
Many of these theories and other diatribes are espoused by Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a local music producer and all-around shady character who recognizes in Ben someone he can speak to on a more philosophical level.
It’s an awkward approach and a thankless one for the actor to have to perform, but he handles it as well as can be expected, and only the fact that what his character is spouting is interesting and well-written saves this from becoming too tedious.
I don’t want to make “Vengeance” sound as though it’s a chore or a narrative exercise in heavy lifting. It’s actually quite fun. The mystery is engaging, the humor pointed and the analysis of our current woes spot on.
Novak has produced a provocative, impressive debut, and I’m eager to see what he’ll do next.
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