‘Vengeance’ is BJ Novak’s near-perfect debut

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(3.5 stars)

The film “Vengeance” — a dark comedy about cultural arrogance, the opioid crisis, guns, storytelling and the need to, well, get revenge — marks the feature film debut from writer-director-producer BJ Novak (best known as writer, director, producer and ensemble cast member of “The Office”). To say that Novak’s feature debut is auspicious wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s more than that. “Vengeance” is a gripping, clever, funny and touching take on a slice of the American zeitgeist, in which the divisions and ties with our fellow citizens are highlighted. It’s a terrific yarn, both provocative and entertaining, that can only surprise those unfamiliar with Novak’s best-selling children’s book, “The Book With No Pictures.”

Novak also stars here, as journalist Ben Manalowitz, New York magazine writer and podcaster for the “American Moment”-esque “This American Life,” with a Manhattan-centric view of the hovering country to rival satirized geographical myopia. by illustrator Saul Steinberg in his famous 1976 cover for this magazine, “View of the World From 9th Avenue”. When Ben gets a call from Abby Shaw’s brother – an aspiring singer Ben “bonded” with a few times, in his words – telling him she died of an OxyContin overdose and insisting – inexplicably to Ben – about Abby (short for Abilene) wanting her “boyfriend” to attend the funeral, he has no choice but to agree. Once Ben reluctantly flies off to West Texas and the brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), informs Ben that he believes Abby’s death was murder and the two should work together to avenge her. , violently, Ben has an idea, but only after pitching it to his podcast editor at home (Issa Rae).

Ben will do a few interviews and piece together a story: maybe not the kind of investigative expose Ty expects, but one that looks at Texas and Abby (Lio Tipton, seen in cellphone music videos and performances recorded music), as symptoms of a deep malaise. Ty calls it an acceptable compromise. “Once people on Reddit find out” who the murderer is, he says, “they will kill him for us.” But all Ben really promised, in his wary way, was this: find the person – or, as he carefully puts it, “widespread societal force” – responsible for Abby’s death, and “define” it.

It’s a slippery wish, and it suggests, for obvious reasons, that what follows is going to involve an unfairly condescending caricature of rural American life and the Shaws, including Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens), mom Sharon (J. Smith -Cameron), his sisters Paris and Kansas City (Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron), and his little brother Mason, aka El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel).

But Novak is too smart for that, and if anyone goes wrong here, it’s Ben, whom Novak is tall and self-effacing enough to gently ridicule. The supporting cast pulls it off relatively easily and includes a standout performance from Ashton Kutcher as Abby’s slick, silver-tongued record producer Quentin Sellers. Quentin is some kind of cowboy poet/philosopher in a 10-gallon hat and white embroidered suit that looks like something done by late country-western star Nudie Cohn. Under Novak’s quiet guidance, Kutcher never pushes the performance too far. Like the story itself, which zigzags when you expect it to zag, Quentin is full of surprises.

On the surface, “Revenge” is a murder mystery, with its share of red herrings, a password-protected cell phone belonging to the victim and a No. 1 suspect: drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa), who s also turns out to be something other than expected.

If “Vengeance” has a weakness, it’s that it sometimes comes across as a bit overwritten, for lack of a better word. Too often, the characters speak in a way that sounds less like themselves than a guy at the keyboard of a laptop: a little Ben Manalowitz and a little BJ Novak.

It’s a little quibble. It’s a film worth seeing and listening to its unpredictable ideas. There’s a running joke in the movie: Ben signals his assent, over and over again, with the hyperbolic catchphrase “one hundred percent.” Is “Vengeance” a flawless film? No, but it’s 90% perfect.

R In neighborhood theatres. Contains coarse language, drug use and brief violence. 107 minutes.

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