July 28, 2022

GENRE | Taking 'Vengeance' – B.J. Novak Podcasts Texas Life

"I don't avenge deaths."
Boyd Holbrook B.J. Novak | Vengeance Blumhouse
Focus Features / Blumhouse Productions
Comedian B.J. Novak, a writer/producer on The Office, teams up with micro-budget horror label Blumhouse for his impressive feature directorial debut in the clever true-crime riff, Vengeance. Novak directs himself as a shallow coastal liberal elite writer type who decides to exploit small-town middle America in a whip-smart reversal of rural red state politics set deep in the oilfield heartland of West Texas.

Vengeance takes the episodic podcast structure to pique our cultural obsession with “dead white girl” conspiracies to explore the deeply human reactions of a close-knit conservative family grieving the unexpected death of their daughter/sister (Lio Tipton as aspiring singer Abilene in flashbacks) from an all too familiar opioid overdose. Novak turns this banger of a premise into a fish-out-of-water, murder mystery-tinged dark comedy about a snobbish wannabe podcaster clearly out of his depth who is constantly underestimating others he initially assumes are beneath him.

Co-starring Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, and Ashton Kutcher as a trio of endearing characters supporting Novak's increasingly mockable Ben in the brother seeking vengeance for his sister's death based on no evidence, Novak's whip-smart podcast producer, and a deeply philosophical record producer with a nuanced understanding of America's conflicting societal divides, the film ambitiously takes its time at establishing clear motivations and depth to its refreshingly ideologically diverse characters.

I could have also surprisingly done with more of John Mayer waxing all things douchebaggery on the limitations of monogamy atop the rooftop bar of Soho House in the film's blisteringly funny opening scene. Still, the film’s key to comic success is Novak’s restraint in limiting the inherent insufferable nature of Vengeance’s many, layered comedic premises through its razor-sharp execution at every turn.

Vengeance goes back and forth on whether the central death is anything more than a tragic accident or not while balancing the true stories of its supporting characters' struggles including Ben's growing issue with the ethics of exploiting a family's trauma. His ending flirts with getting a little too cute on wrapping up every detail neatly laid out with a bow of an explanation while ruminating on America's coastal divisions, but it largely works nonetheless.

More | YVArcade / Indiewire / Slashfilm

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