“A writer from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with and travels down south to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her.”

Director: B.J. Novak
Writer: B.J. Novak
Staring B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher
Rating: R
Release Date: July 29, 2022

Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is a young writer based in New York loving the life of a single man. He is balancing his time being social and sculpting his career for something grander. He aspires to have a project that takes him on a journey of discovery, and fortunate for him, one lands right in his lap.

Manalowitz gets a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) that his girlfriend Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died. Manalowitz can’t even get a word in and suddenly he finds himself in Texas with the Shaw family attending his girlfriend’s funeral. The Shaw’s don’t know that they were just on hook-up basis, so Manalowitz is hoping to just escape without to much drama.

Wait, Ty says that his sister was murdered? Wait. The Shaws act like a mid-west version of a CMT reality show? Wait. There is a underground drug ring? Wait. Someone tries to kill Manalowitz for getting to close?

All this adds up for what the hungry writer yearned for. A crazy story. One that he had tell personally and extrapolate to a greater American idea. This is his chance.

Manalowit works with his producer/editor Eloise (Issa Rae) to navigate the story unfolding in this rural part of Texas. The out of place New Yorker meets a handful of interesting characters, including all the local and federal law officers, the sweet-speaking music producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher) and the young dangerous gang leader, Sancholo (Zach VIlla).

The story of Abilene’s death was the starting point but the string of yarn begins unraveling reveals a rather rotten spool at its center. Manalowitz has his trust tested and his self-serving values pressed. Vengeance delivers its twists well and concocts a tense final sequence where the result is genuinely uncertain.

Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) with Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) enjoying a burger

With B.J. Novak writing, it is not a surprise that Vengeance is funny. What is a refreshing delight is that this style of comedy is not something Novak fans have seen from him before. It is a prodding type of comedy, using subtle lines, soft voices and cultural references.

The joke about Twitter being a godforsaken stench of land is a good chuckle. Adeline’s younger brother reading off “Claire from Bumble” contact-esq names from Manalowitz’s phone is wonderful. I loved the Texas football jokes; even the most embarrassing bit at the rodeo.

Vengeance is funny. It’s humor is as dry and the desert the Shaw family lives in, but you’ll be smiling.

B.J. Novak got the green light for Vengeance in 2020 and since then it has been a pet project for him. He approached this project because he knew it would surprise people who have seen the rest of his work. He said on a podcast episode of Office Ladies that the idea came from a different movie poster he saw at a random film festival. He took the task seriously and put more pressure on his directorial debut by placing himself in the staring role.

This is an interesting debate. Is is easier to do it all from behind the camera and not have to worry about being artistic as well as technical and logical? Or is it easier to be the lead because you know the tone you want and you know the way you want to characters to interact?

Novak, you mind answering that question?

I am at the point where I am never disappointed to see Issa Rae in a movie. Playing the role of Eloise, editor and chief, she is damn good at the phone conversations with with Manalowitz. Also have to love that she is a hands on producer and not someone who just passes the editing along to someone else. It is fantastic writing to have her talk with Manalowitz in both her office and her apartment. Don’t know if its purposeful, but it shows that both characters work outside the office, so it helps us by the connection and care the amicable connection and care they have for one another.

“I’d probably say that nobody writes anything. All we do is translate. So if you ever get stuck and you don’t know what to say… just listen. Even to the silences. Listen as hard as you can to the world around you and… repeat back what you hear. That translation, that’s your voice.”

Dude. Ashton Kutcher is really good in this. Toss that in the “things I never would have imagined to be real” category. Playing the part of the overly charismatic music producer, Kutcher does the hardest thing. He makes characters in the show, and more importantly the audience members, believe that he is not a suspect. He has the cool as hell persona where all he cares about is making the hidden artists seen, but naturally the blindfold can’t hold the entire time.

Sellers final confrontation with Manalowitz is wrought with good writing, to put it plainly. The word weaving that Sellers is able to muster together in the face of a incriminating witness is oddly intoxicating. His matter of fact nature with the evil he knows he is doing is scary but also magnetic. Kutcher still has his fastball went he wants it. Makes you wish he would do it more often.

Side note. Ashton…you have to let IMDB know to change your profile picture.

Vengeance is the first movie Novak has written and directed and it really is a enjoyable and well-crafted experience. His time writing witty dry humor shines through, and it helps when you are acting out the hue you want your movie to follow. Manalowitz is not the most likable character, but he is the most honest…well true to himself as a lying, selfish author. In the end he is the vessel for the truth is stranger than fiction mantra. He does expose a different part of the world.

B.J. Novak really hits the mark with Vengeance. The movie is smart, funny, and a perfect blend of self aware. Vengeance, while maybe not the best titled movie, skips along its story with few obtrusive ripples. Doesn’t matter if this movie made less than five million at the box office. Vengeance deserves and will get the views on Peacock. This movie is too well-written not to.

STANKO RATING: B+ (4.0/5 Stars)

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