For Ben Manalowitz, America is just a theory. And he’s got plenty of them: Theories that favor time over space, myth over fact, conspiracy over simplicity. Some are good, really good, but a lot are over-cooked, over-thought, and over-analyzed after one too many glasses of scotch on the rocks.

But Eloise (Issa Rae) knows Ben (B.J. Novak) has something. He just needs that one big story to pull it out. That comes when Ben gets an early morning call informing him his girlfriend, Abilene (Lio Tipton, seen only in videos), is dead. An overdose. Using his well-honed skill of conversing without really listening, Ben quickly scans his phone for proof of Abilene’s existence—a girl he hooked up with but nothing more. Abilene must have thought differently. And now her family, deep in the heart of Texas, wants Ben to come to the funeral.

Written and directed by Novak, Vengeance is a comedy with something on its mind. First about the relations of vapid people, then about the power of artistic endeavor, finally about reconciling a country so big and so full of contradictions its multitudes contain multitudes.

Ben goes to West Texas mostly out of guilt but stays when he finds what he’s been looking for. The man on the other end of that pre-dawn phone call is Ty (Boyd Holbrook), Abilene’s older brother. He suspects murder most foul and enlists Ben to help him hunt down and kill the perpetrators. Ben believes the coroner might be closer to the truth: Abilene died alone in a field from a heroin overdose. But Ben likes where Ty’s head’s at. It’s the story he’s been looking for: A bygone town where life is so simple, so dull, the locals cook up conspiracy theories and buy them hook, line, and sinker. Eloise likes the angle and agrees to produce a podcast of Ben’s findings. Ben has his story, and Ty has his cohort. You’re a smart man, Ty tells Ben after hearing about the true-crime podcast they’re going to make. After this comes out, those fellas on Reddit will kill him for us.

One of the pleasures of Vengeance is that Ben’s cultural assumptions are so front-and-center they sometimes rook the audience. Why else would a camera scanning a rodeo crowd settle on a Second Amendment tattoo—with bullets standing in for the II—on an extra’s shoulder? Vengeance feels like a spiritual sibling to Jon Stewart’s 2020 satire, Irresistible. Sometimes it’s easy to forget who the butt of the joke is. Here, it’s Ben. It’s always Ben. He’s the one from New York who’s bought the lie that anyone in flyover country is a homogenized backward yokel with the reading comprehension of a third grader. In one scene, Ben interviews Abilene’s younger sister, Paris (Isabella Amara), about how many guns they have in the house. With the flimsiest of connections, Ben invokes Anton Chekhov’s oft-repeated line about a gun presented in the first act going off in the third. Paris interjects: She wants to know when the pistol actually shows up in Uncle Vanya. Ben hasn’t a clue. He’s never read or seen the play. He just knows the line.

Ashton Kutcher and B.J. Novak in Vengeance. Images courtesy Focus Features.

Ben knows all the lines, but the Texans know the song. They don’t complicate life with excessive theories that sound like podcasts hooks or thinly veiled pick-up lines. They accept the messiness of life and the beauty therein. In one scene, Quentin Sellars (Ashton Kutcher, spectacular), a multi-millionaire record producer in a white Stetson, fills the room with some of the most impressive hot air about that messiness and the beauty behind it. That Ben buys Sellars’ speech shows how gullible the inauthentic life can be.

Of course everyone in West Texas is as smart and plugged in as Ben. They have Wi-Fi, too, and they know just as much, maybe more, about what’s going on in the world. He just happens to live in New York City, so he thinks he’s better by default. The Texans feel similarly about their home. It doesn’t matter where you go or where you live; people like to think they’re a little bit better than somebody else.

That Novak can make this joke sustainable for 100 minutes is impressive. The humor is plentiful, the story is solid—though coincidences play a heavy hand at times—and the performances are good. Real good. So much so that the images are more functional than illustrative. When the movie does pause to take in the landscape, mostly oil derricks in the setting sun, it does so to provide rest between the words. Ditto for the music. Finneas O’Connell’s score is fine, but feels inconsequential, overshadowed by Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” over the opening—inconsiderate considering a woman is dying alone in an oil field—and Lana Del Rey’s “American” in the movie’s finale. The song is a callback to a first-act joke (that damn Chekhov again) but lacks the momentum to carry the movie’s cowboy climax.

Despite its location and fair share of hats, Vengeance isn’t a western, but it does seem to be standing in the same pen as John Ford’s masterful The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Much like Chekhov’s gun, a line from Valance continues to live on in infamy: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a line that would fit all too well into Ben’s podcast. But in Valance, “print the legend” is used to ennoble the frontier justice that foraged this country into what it is. In Vengeance, “print the legend” would ennoble nothing more than an increasingly fractured reality. That Novak pulls that off in a comedy that ends with its hero staring blankly out a truck window is quite a feat.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Vengeance (2022)
Written and directed by B.J. Novak
Produced by Jason Blum, Greg Gilreath, Adam Hendricks
Starring: B.J. Novak, Issa Rae, Boyd Holbrook, Isabella Amara, Dove Cameron, Eli Bickel, Ashton Kutcher, Lio Tipton
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 107 minutes, Opens July 29, 2022

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