“Vengeance” (2022) – “So, as like a personal boundary, I don’t avenge deaths.” – Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak)
When we first meet, Ben Manalowitz, a 30-something writer for The New Yorker, he chats with one of his buddies at a New York City get-together. These two single dudes commit a solid five minutes of screen time bantering about their eternal commitments to not forge commitments with their various trysts, dates, and temporary partners. They quickly volley back and forth, and it’s a bit dizzying to recall all the details. However, they repeatedly affirm each other’s declarations by uttering “a hundred percent” in an effectively comical scene that establishes Ben as a big-city fast talker and sharp thinker.
The Collective They say that a typical screenplay’s number of pages will roughly equal the runtime minutes of the associated movie. With a breakneck pace of rapid discourse during the opening conversation of “Vengeance”, one might opine that this 94-minute film must partner with a 188-page screenplay.
A hundred percent?
Well, this picture’s stride does decelerate as Mr. Manalowitz visits a small town in West Texas, which Ty (Boyd Holbrook) describes as a place that’s “five hours from Abilene (pop. 125,000).”
This critic didn’t recall the aforementioned township’s designation. Quite frankly, no one may have uttered it, but the municipality’s name isn’t essential to the movie. Instead, the culture clash between Ben’s core northern, urban certainties and the Lone Star State’s key players’ small-town sensibilities is paramount in this sarcastic comedy and whodunit that stirs up a few genuine sit-up-and-take-notice surprises.
Novak – best known as Ryan from “The Office” (2005 – 2013) – directs his first big-screen movie here. He also penned the script about this city-slicker fish finding himself out of water on dusty, desolate plains where close-knit families enjoy home-cooked meals, line dancing, rodeos, Texas Tech football, and also carry guns as a matter a fact, like throwing on a pair of pants and cowboy boots in the morning.
No question, Novak plays up the stereotypes of Ben’s newfound friends, The Shaw family, who embrace him as one of their own.
They mistakenly believe that he was Abilene’s (Lio Tipton) long-term boyfriend, and when she suddenly passes away, her brother Ty insists that Ben must travel to her funeral. What Ty, Abilene’s sisters (Isabella Amara, Dove Cameron), younger brother (Eli Bickel), mom (J. Smith-Cameron), and grandmother (Louanne Stephens) don’t realize is that Ben only hooked up with her a few times. He barely has any emotional association with this deceased 20-something, who thought much more of their time together than our lead did.
However, when does the film’s title come into play? Ty believes that Abilene’s death wasn’t accidental, so he recruits the reluctant Ben to help solve the mystery and enact vengeance.
Serious stuff, but the movie balances the overhanging gravity with lighter tones. During Mr. Manalowitz’s time in the 28th state, he dodges deep questions about his “relationship” with Abilene and Lone Star philosophies. The movie’s best moments are these classic, familiar comic cases of misunderstanding and discomfort. Novak’s slight build and height (5’ 9”) make him a fine folly for teasing by the Shaws and other Texas folk. Meanwhile, he dialogues in circles over and around this brand-new (to him) community.
Ben also talks in loops around us as he attempts to construct a long-form podcast/radio story about this misadventure and frequently communicates with his boss, Eloise (Issa Rae). Ben and B.J. have tons to say about society’s 21st-century mental state and our coping mechanisms for forming personal connections, defining our purposes, and grasping for meaning. On occasion, the story dives into the weeds, and it’s sometimes challenging to completely process the discourse. Still, Novak’s and Manalowitz’s messages are praiseworthy and poignant, as the frequent societal memos kick up narrative dust devils on Ben’s trek along the rustic pathways.
Ashton Kutcher also strolls into the picture in a memorable supporting role as a music producer and part-time philosopher that puts our hero on his heels. But, Novak is on his toes in “Vengeance”, and it’s obvious to surmise that he poured bushels of heart into his debut film. He successfully lassoes several cinematic targets, including a couple of tender moments that stand as tall as the biggest laughs and surprising revelations.
“Vengeance” isn’t a typical revenge picture.
A hundred percent.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed and written by: B.J. Novak
Starring: B.J. Novak, Lio Tipton, Boyd Holbrook, Isabella Amara, Eli Bickel, J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron, and Ashton Kutcher
Runtime: 94 minutes
Image credits: Focus Features