I am as big a fan of comic book films and action movies as anybody you can think of, but my two favorite films so far this year are small independents created by film makers with distinct visions, and this movie is one of those films. This was written and directed by actor B.J. Novak, and I am impressed with his ability to balance the story he is telling with the subjects he is dealing with. It would be easy to see this as a take down of fly over culture, except that it isn’t. Certainly, the idiosyncrasies of Texas life are shown in a humorous light, but just when you think they are being mocked, there is a note that not only validates the point but expresses some appreciation for it. Oh, and by the way, the coasts are not immune from the being targeted. In the long run, this film does a lot to unify the culture in a way that may not be appreciated by everyone, but was certainly welcome by me.
Novak has identified Rob Reiner as his favorite director, citing the marvelous stretch of films from the early 80s to the early 90s. Among those films is “This is Spinal Tap”, a mockumentary that has been an inspiration for film makers ever since and clearly has influenced this film. “Vengeance” is a little more subtle about taking down the podcast/media establishment, but the humor and satire in this script is no less biting than Spinal Tap’s songs that mimic heavy metal themes. When Ben and his editor/mentor start calling the project, “Dead White Girl”, the rest of us can see that this is “Sex Farm Woman” and “Big Bottom” redux. The shallowness of our gawker consumption of true crime podcasts is also indicated by the opening conversation that Novak’s character Ben has with his friend at the party. Their supposedly rational approach to relationships sound insincere from the start, and it sets up the payoff for this film at the climax.
Everybody in the film is excellent, but I would be remiss if I neglected to take special notice of actor Ashston Kutcher in the role of West Texas music producer Quentin Sellars, with a charismatic grasp of that job, but a warped philosophy about life. He is in two long sequences in the film and those moments both owe a debt to Robert Shaw’s monologue in “Jaws”. Kutcher is not quite Shaw in those moments, but he is damn good and watchable as all get out. Novak’s Ben is basically Richard Dreyfuss in the monologue sequence on the Orca. We see astonishment on his face as Kutcher pulls a greater performance out of his recording artist with a story that seems incongruent but perfectly taps the inspiration he is looking for. The growing admiration Ben feels for Quentin Sellars in this moment will be juxtaposed later in the film when the ramification of the philosophy is causally laid out in front of him by a smug and self righteous charlatan. Ben’s facial expressions mirror the horror and disbelief that Hooper felt as he listened to Quint. The final reaction is priceless and justifies classifying this film as a revenge drama along side the phrase comedy/mockumentary.
There are three distinct turns that the film takes in story and tone. At first we are treated to what looks like a comedy takedown of life outside of the big city. There was plenty to laugh about and the characters don’t feel too exaggerated as to make the perception feel skewed. The second section goes a long way to building a warm relationship between disparate characters and the way they approach life. I have to admit that as a transplant to Texas, I learned more about the “What-a-burger” obsession that some people here have than I have learned in my two years of living here. Unfortunately, the jurisdictional law enforcement politics hits it’s mark a bit too accurately in light of the police response to the Uvalde shooting. The third section of the film, forces us to confront some ugly truths about all of the characters. Our ability for denial in the face of the truth, our willingness to emotionally betray those we care for in pursuit of our own needs are both big parts of the last act. It is however redemption, in the most unlikely Liam Neeson moment of a film called “Vengeance”, that will let you love or hate this film. I felt the climax was earned, and in the end, like a long string of revenge movies before it, “Vengeance” surprisingly earns it’s title.
As writer, director and principle actor in the film, B.J. Novak has earned my respect. This is a sophisticated and balanced look at our contemporary culture. He finds the sad, meaningless relationships of modern men and destroys them. The use of stereotyping is shown to be destructive in multiple directions, finally acknowledging that sophisticates are capable of being just as blind as those in the hinterlands. The tonal shifts do come abruptly, but they come from revelations that are natural and human. Maybe the journalist/writer is a little too self confident in his interviews, but he is capable of screwing up like the rest of us and gets called out for his condescension each time. The one time that being called out for his so called selfish acts, is the mic drop moment of the film.