Friday August 12, 2022
Movie Review: Vengeance (2022)
I had trouble with this movie immediately. There were a few things I just didn’t buy.
Writer-director B.J. Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a douchey writer for The New Yorker who hangs out at parties with a douchey friend, John (John Mayer), where they keep agreeing with each other’s douchey thoughts “100 percent.” That’s their catchphrase. Novak really underlines that one. Oh, and they drink their bourbon neat—a classic sign of movie douchiness. It’s such a classic sign, I don’t know if Novak isn’t mocking the trope rather than the characters.
That’s not what I didn’t buy, by the way. I mean, it’s uninteresting but believable. Here’s what I found unbelievable.
Ben, desperate for a podcast, seems to need the help of Eloise (Issa Rae), a big-name podcast producer, to make it happen. He’s all but begging her. I’m like: Wait, can’t anyone create a podcast? Also, doesn’t he write for The New Yorker? Isn’t that enough for writers these days? And even if it isn’t, wouldn’t the fact that he writes for The New Yorker help him get such a podcast? I mean, don’t they even have one? “The New Yorker Radio Hour”? Shouldn’t he be talking to David Remnick?
And then the movie gets more unbelievable.
So it’s already been established that Ben’s a douchey guy, with a lot hook-ups. He’s in the middle of one such hook-up when he gets a call from the brother of one of his former hook-ups, letting him know that she died. Of a drug overdose. Near her home in west Texas. He barely remembers the girl, but the brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook of “Narcos”), assumes they were very, very close—that he was the love of his sister’s life—and invites him to Texas for the funeral. More than invites: He assumes he’ll be there. It’s really the last thing Ben wants to do in the last place he wants to go.
And he still goes.
Admittedly the phone call is an awkward situation. But there are a zillion ways to get out of it. Plus, as we've established, he’s a douche. I’m sure he’s had practice.
Instead, there he is, hopping a flight, to go to a very isolated part of west Texas, and sit with the family in the front row of this poor girl’s funeral, where the big funeral photo, the one on the stand, is of her kissing Ben on the cheek as he stares at the camera and sips from his glass of bourbon, neat. (That actually cracked me up.)
Anyway, it’s here that Ben comes up with an idea for a podcast that finally catches Eloise’s interest. Ty, you see, believes his sister, Abby, didn’t die of an opioid overdose; he thinks she was murdered by a Mexican drug cartel. And so on a dusty Texas backroad, with Ty 12 feet away in his truck, Ben phones Eloise and makes his pitch: a podcast about “a new American reality where people invent these conspiracies because the truth is too hard to accept.”
Sounds intriguing. Ben winds up staying not only with the family but in Abby’s old bedroom. He’s pretending to help Ty expose the murder but in reality he’s exposing the family. Or on another level he’s exposing himself. That’s a big point of the movie. Sure, they’re hicks, but they’re hicks with hearts. And he’s a douche without one. And their down-homeness help make him become a better man. You see it coming about as far as you can see down a flat, west Texas backroad.
The movie almost saves itself halfway through, particularly with the arrival of Ashton Kutcher as an existential Zen-like record producer, Quentin Sellers, who once recorded Abby. Plus Novak is a comedy writer and we get some good bits. Ben sends away for his own high-end coffee-maker and asks Abby’s younger sister (Dove Cameron of Bainbridge Island) how she takes her coffee. “In my mouth?” she says, with a “no duh” tone. I also like the grandma (Louanne Stephens) saying Abby’s murder isn’t something you can solve with a .45. “It’s the breakdown of society is what it is,” she says. After Ben nods, she adds, “You’re gonna need a 12 gauge, a couple of ARs, a Wesson automatic and a sidearm for safety.”
Maybe the best line is when some good ol' boys are talking revenge movies, including Liam Neeson in “Taken,” and one of them says Ben reminds him of someone from a Liam Neeson movie. It takes a second for him to remember: “Schindler’s List.” Ben's “right” nod is perfect. Right, that’s who I am here. Right, that’s who you are here.
In cold blood
The problem with the movie—along with all the aforementioned hard-to-believe stuff—is its unevenness. Just as we’re getting a more nuanced view of everyone involved, Grandma, at their favorite hangout Whataburger, let’s slip that, yes, Abby had a drug problem. They all know she ODed. They all know there’s no conspiracy. Which leads to the most idiot rant from Ben, in which he condemns them in the most broad blue state/red state terms, as if he hadn’t just spent weeks getting to know them better.
And after that rant, after Ty decks him in the parking lot, he still returns to their house? To sleep? In Abby’s room? They let him?
Which is where he finally unlocks Abby’s phone and finds out she never was enamored of him, that all that time she was in love with Quentin Sellers, who is in fact a seller—a drug dealer. Ben confronts him and finds out he caused Abby’s death without a shred of remorse. Which is when Ben turns into Liam Neeson. He pulls a gun and kills him. In cold blood. Ben. And he gets away with it. And that's that.
So the movie begins with stuff I don’t buy and ends with an act I don’t buy.
“Vengeance” is so uneven I assumed it began pre-pandemic and finished up when things got safer. Yep. If I could’ve given B.J. Novak notes I would’ve told him: Lose the “100 percent” scene at the beginning; lose the Whataburger parking lot rant; lose the bourbon, neat. Don’t make Ben a cartoon douche. Make him someone whose ambitions maybe get a little ahead of his morality, but don’t be afraid to let us care about him a little. Novak plays shallow all the time, which is fine for a supporting role, but tougher for a lead. It’s tough to sustain a whole movie with it. This is Exhibit A.