'Vengeance' Will Make You Want to Punch B.J. Novak in the Face — in a Good Way
It’s a wonder more fish-out-of-water comedies aren’t about journalists. Being an outsider is, in many versions of the job, central to the task. Disaster strikes, you helicopter in, vacuum up the details, organize them, spit them out with a handsome lede, helicopter out. Or, in the case of Vengeance’s Ben Manalowitz, you hook up with a girl a few times and later get a call out of nowhere that she died — a call that you, a mere hookup, are getting thanks to kissy-faced photos she posted on social media, which have confused her family into thinking you were her boyfriend. Then you helicopter in.
In that second case, you’re the story — you and this weird little journey you’re on, which goes downhill from the moment that you’re asked to give a eulogy for a woman whose name you didn’t even remember when you heard she had died. One of hookup culture’s worst nightmares is sudden, unexpected obligation. For Ben, a consummate opportunist with dreams of nabbing a big-time podcast, obligation lands in his lap at just the right time, and he wouldn’t be the man that he is if he didn’t instinctively turn it into an opportunity.
A good thing about Vengeance is that Ben is played by B. J. Novak, who also wrote and directed the movie, and who’s succeeded at coming up with a project that matches his comedic style: likably unlikable, the kind of prick you’d still watch a movie about. Vengeance exercises his knack for making unappetizing social qualities watchable, maybe because he’s playing a character whose self-confidence you don’t really believe in, or maybe because you already know that the movie will make him the butt of some of its rudest jokes. At the movie’s start, Ben is in full-on womanizer mode, palling around with John Mayer and saying things about women that you somehow doubt he can really live up to — well on his way, in other words, to earning himself the punch in the face that he’ll get later in the movie. He writes for the New Yorker, apparently, but that matters less than the fact that he can’t help but correct people when they mistakenly call it New York Magazine — a distinction that for Ben merits all the difference in the world.
Ben is dragged down to Nowheresville, Texas, to the funeral of Abby (Lio Tipton), only because he doesn’t have enough of a backbone to tell her family that this woman was just a hookup — an awkward thing to have to say about someone’s dead relative, admittedly. From watching Vengeance, you’d guess much of Ben’s life played out like this: beholden to stronger personalities, empowered by his byline and his “outside-of-Boston” degree.
It’s only when he meets Abby’s mother (played by J. Smith-Cameron), older brother (Boyd Holbrook), sisters, younger brother, and grandmother — with their wild, Texan talk, and Alamo hero-worship, and guns, and bloodthirsty fantasies of vengeance — that he sees this trip for the gift that it is. Abby ostensibly died of a drug overdose. Her family believes she was murdered. Ben… doesn’t care so much about that. He cares about the wild things coming out of their mouths. He is going to exploit them.
Vengeance pokes fun at New York writer-types and insular, gun-toting Texans both. It’s funnier and smarter when it’s sticking it to New York media. “Not every white guy in New York needs a podcast,” Ben is told by Eloise (Issa Rae), a successful producer. Of course he starts one anyway. Of course it’s “about America.” And of course his needling opportunism meets its match when he actually makes his way around Texas and learns, the hard way, that he doesn’t know spit about the place: doesn’t know the right teams to root for, doesn’t know the social rules (such as: only the residents of a place can shit on that place) or which jokes to laugh at or why it’s so tedious for someone to have to explain just why it is that they love Whataburger.
Watching Ben learn that you cannot judge books by their covers, not even the books trying to make nice with the local branch of a cartel, is a little boring. It’s appropriate to a movie that’s gently spoofing podcasters, however. It’s when we see Ben get humiliated that Vengeance serves up its finest thrills: red-hot, uncomfortable, a little mean, vaguely dangerous. It isn’t until he’s at a rodeo that Ben fully announces his Jewishness within the movie, by way of saying his last name aloud, in front of a crowd. It’s a scene that started by confronting him with a Confederate flag, one of the movie’s better punchlines. And now look at him: singled out in front of a crowd whose hostility could be because he’s an outsider, or because he keeps putting his foot in his mouth, or because he’s condescending, or because he’s a “New York writer,” or because he’s Jewish — or all of the above.
The tension works, the comedy works, because it’s unilateral. The rowdy Texans are the butt of one joke, Ben the butt of the funnier joke — the one about a try-hard smarty who works in liberal media, makes a living telling relatable human interest stories about people from all walks of life, and yet bears little trace of having ever actually interacted with a fellow human in a real, nontransactional way. It’s a joke that’s been told about the overeducated before. It sort of works here, though, because Ben’s participation in this premise is so narcissistically far-fetched to begin with.
Clearly, he cannot be allowed to stay this way. That would be too vicious. And Ben isn’t cool enough to pull off that narcissism with the smooth, polished charisma of a plainspoken, genius record producer, like the man he encounters in Quinten Sellers (a scene-stealing Ashton Kutcher). Vacuum-sealed life lessons are so de rigueur for NPR-style podcasts and their murder-mystery peers that a movie like Vengeance would be wise enough to parody the idea, no holds barred and no apologies needed. Vengeance is not quite so wise. It’s almost there. We’ve reached the era in which, for a murder podcast, no ending is the best ending. Sure, the mystery remains unsolved, but now we can expound. Vengeance pokes its fun at this idea. The result is less an elbow to the ribs than proof that the movie is laudably current, very up-to-the-moment, very wink-wink.
Or maybe Vengeance knows that, as a comedy, it doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on if corny trends in podcasting are the target. Podcasts often reward fake-deep explorations of the self. So, unfortunately, do many current comedies, which in this century have often fallen prey to a similar mandate that we eat our broccoli, taking our laughs with a side of social responsibility, their meanness tempered by gestures at what can be learned, their plots overwhelmingly invested in goodness, niceness, and faith in others. At its best moments, Vengeance sees the peril in all of this by seeing right through it — by seeing through Ben, whose journey to our good graces is made more drastic by his starting the movie out as a complete dick.
In the end, we see Ben falling asleep listening to Abby’s music — a stark change from the man who earlier couldn’t make the time to so much as click a link. In a morally effective comedy, an outright satire, this shift would be world-shaking; it’d be so ironic, you’d have to laugh. Moral comedy, this is not. More than anything else, it’s just convenient.
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