Sometimes you have to wonder if an actor’s gotten too good at playing “unlikable.”
B.J. Novak, a sometime actor who scripted his way onto the screen in “The Office” and thus had some control over the image he wanted his character to convey, might be the case in point. And he tops that faithless, backstabbing “Office” Romeo bro with “Vengeance,” his feature film writing and directing debut.
It’s a movie about the clashing values of America’s “culture wars” and a send up of the most narcissistic, fame-craving generation ever. And in Ben Manalowitz, Novak tries to create a Sammy Glick for our times — a New York “type” flattering himself as fit to pass judgement on other American “types” by dint of his New Yorker Magazine staff writing gig and his amoral, avaricious ambition.
Ben wants his own podcast, because that’s the way connected New York media folks create “intellectual property” and parlay their “stories” into streaming TV series, movies, fame and wealth.
We meet Ben, scrolling through his phone, thoughtlessly chatting up one of his “bros” about women, hook-ups, avoiding “commitment” and the like.
“I only date ONLY children…or the oldest of three” kids in a family is his ethos. “100 percent” is his vocalized crutch, his way of affirming anything anybody is telling him. He’s shallow and if not instantly repellent, at least he’s someone most people would be wary of.
He’s been peppering a public radio podcast producer (the wonderful Issae Rae of “Insecure” and “The Lovebirds”) with vague pitches for “America” in this moment podcast ideas, leaning on what he arrogantly perceives as his great gift to journalism or “writing,” as he pretentiously insists on calling his profession.
He can “find this person, or that generalized cultural force.” He studies it and writes about it. “I will define it!”
But it takes a wee hours phone call from BFE Texas to give him a pitch with a hook.
“Your girlfriend’s dead!” Wait, what? He’s in bed, asleep with one of his regular hook-ups, forced to instantly process who “Abby,” who “told us so much about you” was. He expresses sympathy, researches the name on his phone contacts, deflects when Abby’s sobbing brother Ty speaks of the funeral this coming Saturday.
“I’ll be with you in spirit,” is heard as “Spirit Airlines.” But Ben is just awake enough to smell a “story,” about shallow connections, “relationships” that aren’t — not really. He agrees to come, pitches his podcast producer and hops on a plane.
It’s only when he gets off that he meets Abby “Abilene” Shaw’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook, terrific) that he learns what the family has in mind. “Vengeance.” Ben can help Ty find out “who did this to Abby,” unravel the “conspiracy” behind what the cops wrote off as an “accidental overdose.”
“She wouldn’t touch so much as an ADVIL!”
Ben’s best instincts — “I don’t avenge deaths…I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie!” — are overwhelmed by what a great podcast this will make, a story of guns, family, drugs and Red State America’s mania for vast conspiracies to explain anything they choose not to accept as fact.
He’ll have to ignore Ty’s least favorite Liam Neeson movie, “the one with the trains” (“Schindler’s List”). He’ll have to let slide “You look like a LOTTA guys in that movie” if he wants to “fit in” and get these folks to open up to the digital recorder his producer Fed Ex’s him for “Dead White Girl,” as he plans on calling this series.
It’ll be Ben’s way of exacting “vengeance,” exposing the wide world to what they know, what they find out and maybe even who they ID as “suspects.” As Ty helpfully notes, maybe a motivated listener will “kill’em for us,” after hearing this podcast.
The West Texas setting allows Novak to poke at rodeos, honky tonk line-dancing, Whattaburger, “Frito Pie,” West Texas college football allegiances and the indifferent, dim-witted, kick-to-another “jurisdiction” nature of small town Texas policing. He learns about the drug problem, senses the isolation and resentment of “big city” values and hears the parade of assorted “energy” companies listed as “sponsors” of the rodeo, and he gets it.
Ben interviews cops, a suspected drug “kingpin,” and others. He listens to Abby’s music — she was an aspiring singer-songwriter who could never get him to check out her work — and meets her stereotype-embracing and upending small town record producer, Quentin (Ashton Kutcher).
Maybe as Ben listens to this Quentin fellow he’s taken aback by an upbeat, encouraging and sage recording engineer, coach, cheerleader and philosopher. Quentin is a lot of things Ben most certainly is not — “deep” for starters.
“Nobody writes anything,” Quentin explains. “We just translate.”
And as he’s processing all this and learning all about this “random” hook-up he never got to know, Ben forms an opinion of what’s going on and then abandons it, forms a new opinion and then forms one about himself. He’s soul-searching, examining his own “hollowness” next to these people who ask him “You have family in Texas?” and then tell him “You do, now.”
Before he’s done, Ben might even regret accepting the insistence by the cowboy-hatted preacher and Abby’s family that he “say a few words” at the funeral of a woman he did not know. Most folks he meets make him question every preconceived notion he had about a place he was so ignorant of — “I didn’t know Texans lost at The Alamo.” Not every prejudice is abandoned. Not after meeting rabid Texas Tech football fans, for instance.
Dove Cameron, Eli Bickel and Isabella Amara play the late Abby’s other siblings, J. Smith-Cameron is her earthy, grieving mother, Louanne Stephens is her earthier, gun-nutty (like everybody else) granny. And in music performance clips Ben is seeing for the first time, Lio Tipton brings a sweet, tuneful pathos to Abby, who was plainly more than Ben gave her credit for being.
There are good scenes where Rae’s producer coaches Ben on radio and how to get “good sound” — not talking over people’s answers, affecting a “silent laugh” to encourage an interviewee to open up and expand on something. A sly commentary that exposes big city prejudices is her urging him to “stay safe” and “get the story,” and his acting as if “not in that order” is called for because this unfamiliar place where a girl died is inherently more dangerous than New York.
The podcast, with Ben trying out monologues and introductions in that “This American Life” self-conscious purple prose, is damned convincing. Novak makes the quintessential public radio “storyteller,” reminding us that there’s a reason NPR’s nickname is “B’nai Brith Broadcasting” and that podcasts are not just “for people who couldn’t master radio.” All it takes is being born into the Northeastern “elites,” listening to a few hours of NPR’s affected “storytellers,” the performative nature of their questioning, answering and narrating (We hear “Fresh Air” hostess Terry Gross, here and there.), mimicking the right curious, sympathetic but aloof tone, and bingo — you’re a star…of podcasting.
But “Vengeance” is not a movie to warm to, to embrace or even allow yourself a wholehearted buy-in. Novak keeps characters at arm’s length, forgets about the “mystery” at its heart only to abruptly take it up in the third act and goes all squishy about the various people his script is judging — Ben, the Shaws, the assorted “types.”
“Vengeance” lets you appreciate its ambition and wince at its obvious overreach.
Holbrook is the standout slice of “reality” in the cast — drawling, easily underestimated, impulsive, sure of what he knows and what he wants to do, convinced he can talk this New Yorker into joining him on his quest (which the script doesn’t show Tyactually “investigating” himself).
Kutcher tries his hand at playing cryptic, quiet and thoughtful and almost gets there.
Novak, portraying a mostly-blank-expressioned cypher, gives us nothing to hold onto and little suggestion of an interior life, much less the moral compass his character is supposed to discover.
Novak may like writing and playing “unlikeable” characters, but there’s more to it than just making their goals selfish and their worldview self-centered. He’s happy being the villainous hero or heroic villain in his own story, but he’s damned bland at it. That makes this “hero’s journey” to “defining” divided America murkier, still interesting but not particularly compelling.
Rating: R for language and brief violence
Cast: B.J. Novak, Issa Rae, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron, Lio Tipton, Zach Villa, Isabella Amara and Ashton Kutcher.
Credits: Scripted and directed by B.J. Novak. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:47