REVIEW: Dark comedy ‘Vengeance’ goes deeper than easy stereotypes for laughs in murder mystery movie
SALT LAKE CITY — Stereotypes are an easy way to get a laugh in a movie, especially stereotypes of people you don’t like or those you with whom you disagree. “Look at those weird people and/or their weird customs!” seems to be the essence upon which the humor is built.
It gives those who laugh simultaneous feelings of relief and superiority for not being “like that,” while at the same time reducing the target to nothing more than some of their outwardly observable characteristics.
In today’s often-toxic social media environment, I see stereotypes used quite frequently by those on each side of hot-button topics for laughs and to reinforce preexisting beliefs. So it was refreshing to find a movie like Vengeance (from first-time director B.J. Novak), where stereotypes are definitely plumbed for laughs but where the characters you’re laughing at are also allowed to have more depth to them.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a writer and aspiring podcaster who lives in New York and keeps most people, including his romantic partners, at an arm’s length. One night, with his latest hookup sleeping beside him, he gets an urgent phone call telling him that his girlfriend Abby’s body has been found in a West Texas oil field.
The phone call comes as a surprise to Ben, not because he was in love with this Abby but because he can barely even recall knowing anyone by that name. After scrolling Instagram, he comes across a profile he recognizes: Abilene Shaw (played by Lio Tipton in pictures, flashbacks and online videos).
Ben, feeling both guilt-ridden and confused as to why the caller seems so convinced he was Abby’s serious boyfriend, is eventually talked into going to West Texas to attend her funeral. Once there, he realizes this true crime story could be a career-making opportunity.
Launching an investigation into her death in collaboration with high-powered producer Eloise (Issa Rae), the confident yet very-East-Coast Ben finds himself in over his head attempting to navigate a wildly unfamiliar Texas culture. At the same time, he’s drawn into an ill-considered plot to avenge the crime by the girl’s brother (Boyd Holbrook).
As he grows unexpectedly close to the young woman’s eccentric family (J. Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara, Dove Cameron, Eli Bickel) and encounters figures like the enigmatic music producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), Ben is forced to confront his own shortcomings and preconceptions about others.
THINGS I LIKED
First and foremost, Vengeance is funny. Not too surprising since Novak wrote some of the funnier episodes of “The Office,” but as I mentioned earlier, I really liked how he moved beyond superficial stereotypes to create real characters and relatable explanations for certain behaviors from what could easily have been nothing more than a one-dimensional, see-how-stupid-those-people-are viewpoint of an educated elite.
I also appreciated the character journey of Ben, going from a snobby opportunist to someone who actually begins to empathize with those he originally planned to exploit for his own personal gain. The destination was a little predictable, but there were definitely some clever twists and surprising moments along the way.
Yes, Texas and Texans are the stereotype mined for laughs the most, but I think Texans with a sense of humor will appreciate some of the jabs. Some of them are outright hilarious, and some of them will be funny to Texans the most. For example: Try saying “Go Longhorns” in certain parts of West Texas.
Finally, the cast was very good. Especially Holbrook as Abby’s brother Ty, and Kutcher as the music producer who is as slick as the oil in the fields surrounding them.
Vengeance is rThe run time is 1 hour 34 minutes.
As a lead character, it kind of felt like Novak was playing a variation of Ryan on “The Office”, especially the later-seasons version of his character. Perhaps writing, directing, AND starring was a bit too much to ask of himself.
I wonder how the movie would have been with someone else playing Ben, allowing Novak the writer, and Novak the first-time director to hear how Ben’s words sounded coming from someone else, plus it would also have given us a better look at his ability to direct a lead actor.
Nevertheless, I actually found myself really liking Vengeance. I laughed out loud at several parts and though I thought the dialogue and tone of the movie got a little too self-important at times, it had clever twists and turns, as well as asking some relevant philosophical questions about the times in which we live.
Andy’s final rating: THREE out of FOUR stars
WHERE TO WATCH
Vengeance is playing exclusively in theaters.
Hopefully you & your family found this review helpful! Andy Farnsworth does a weekly “What To Watch” segment for KSL 5 TV in Salt Lake City and also hosts the Fan Effect podcast for KSL NewsRadio. Check out his other in-depth reviews of movies and streaming TV series on KSLTV.com.
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