B.J. Novak’s ‘Vengeance’ Uses Smart Satire to Look at America’s Social Divisions
B.J. Novak somehow manages to package all of the blatant divisions and finer nuances of contemporary America in “Vengeance.” It begins as a comedy before gradually turning into something else that is both dark and ever so sober. For Novak, it’s a terrific feature directorial debut. Mostly known as an actor from shows like “The Office” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” here he proves he can command material that balances humor with biting social commentary. Since the 2016 election, if not before, issues of the divide between coastal and middle America has obsessed the nation to the point of near-conflict. Novak takes a step back and looks at competing stereotypes, proceeding to then dismantle them, using what’s somewhat true and what is plainly misconception.
Ben Manalowitz (Novak) defines an East Coast liberal. He’s educated and writes for the New Yorker while also having a successful podcast. Along with his fellow modern friends, he dismisses the idea of commitment and is content with casual hook ups. He likes to make pitches to his editor, Eloise (Issa Rae), laced with those kind of archaic, overly-thought theories about how the American mind feels alone because tech has fractured our sense of time. Then, one night after another hookup, he gets a mysterious call from a Texan announcing that Ben’s “girlfriend” has died. While Ben certainly does not have a girlfriend, he did know the woman in question, Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton). She was another one of his casuals, but her family was under the impression Ben was a serious boyfriend. Feeling a guilty conscience, Ben travels to Abilene’s hometown in rural Texas to attend the funeral. In addition to meeting Abilene’s mom, grandmother and two sisters, Ben also meets Ty (Boyd Holbrook), her rugged brother who is convinced his sister was murdered. Ty enlists Ben to help him crack the case. Ben figures this has the makings of a good podcast episode about backwards, Trump-loving America. Instead, the writer will have his own perceptions challenged.
“B.J. has done such a wonderful job capturing the state of our nation and bringing out the poetry of how people aren’t as divided as they think,” Boyd Holbrook tells Entertainment Voice about the film. “I haven’t ever done a comedy and this was a chance to do something a bit dark but that also sparks a conversation. When a film can do that, it goes beyond entertainment and can have real meaning and influence in the world.” Novak’s screenplay is quite the proposition considering some of his eventual audience will see in it a sharp critique of themselves. Like any other nation, the United States is really several countries or societies in one land mass. As the recent seasons of political discontent have shown, different corners of the country don’t know much about each other. Ben arrives in Texas with a slight superiority complex, thinking he has to explain to Abilene’s family what the South by Southwest film festival is. To his surprise, they may invite him to the favorite regional burger joint, Whataburger (which is a thing in the southwest), but are quite tuned into all of the current buzzwords and topics.
“Comedy is more difficult. Playing a character like Ty, who has such heart, but in a dark comedy, is much more challenging. But as an actor that’s what you do, you set yourself up to these big tasks,” says Holbrook. That can be said about the entire film, which can veer from big laughs like the Shaws, old and young, correcting Ben’s shoddy history and explaining that Texas lost the battle of the Alamo, to moments where the dialogue genuinely explores the hurtful nature of classism. After growing frustrated one evening over information about Abilene Ty forgot to mention, Ben unspools on the family how yes, it’s true, people from his world are rich, with credentials, and see them as yokels. A local music producer with connections to local drug running, Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), is certainly no yokel and can give Ben a pretty accurate assessment of why many Americans have been taken in by conspiracy theories. Jasmine (Dove Cameron) and Paris (Isabella Amara), Abilene’s sisters, are also capable of throwing around terms like “cultural appropriation” with the same kind of simplistic generalization someone in L.A. might use.
No one is better than anyone else in “Vengeance.” The title is ironic and in a sense so are the attitudes of the participants. Our prejudices are sometimes so engrained we don’t notice them. Everyone takes a tribal stand, as Ben discovers when he gets yanked in front of a rodeo audience and gets roundly booed when he says he likes UT Austin’s football team. The truth is all he knows of Texans are such pop culture highlights. In the same way, the Shaws only see a city guy who could never fit into their world, yet by the end, kind of does. When we think about inequality or class divisions, in the U.S. our stereotypes tend to form around countries like our Latin American neighbors. Yet the very same class and regional divisions exist here. The irony is that Ben doesn’t realize his podcast is becoming more about himself and his emptiness. Eloise, played with the real instincts of a sharp editor by Issa Rae, doesn’t realize how piercing her words are when she tells Ben this is his best work because it’s about a shallow man discovering the lives of others. Our preconceptions of our fellow citizens are themselves just that, shallow. “I am a firm believer of time and space, that you have to live with something for a long period of time to get to know it better,” says Holbrook. “Even my character may seem oblivious about some things, but it comes from a place of love and compassion because he wants to find out what happened to his sister.”
As Ben goes deeper into the environment and story of Abilene, Novak maintains the tone of a mystery, but doesn’t turn his character into a hero. That great question dominating so much of American dating, of whether one can truly be a casual hookup practitioner for life, forces Ben to wonder if he is indeed empty. When he discovers why Abilene’s private thoughts and frustrations about him were, emotionally it’s almost shattering, but done with great depth by the writing. Novak isn’t judging, but presenting real people with real inner questions. “We had a real group of people who are far more intelligent than I was (laughs),” says Holbrook. “But we found a great rhythm to establish how this stranger gets taken into the family. The tone we were going for was let life happen for you, don’t try to force your way through. B.J. was our faithful captain and moral compass who kept us going in the right direction.” Refreshingly, Novak avoids all of the common clichés. No one in Abilene’s town runs a militia and none of her family are obsessed with immigration. “Vengeance” is more about class divisions in the U.S., which has proven a more elusive topic.
One reason it may prove elusive is because it’s not the easiest topic to discuss without provoking real debate. Many sane or reasonable people, rich or poor, can agree racism is bad. It’s the finer prejudices of a society that are trickier to capture. B.J. may not be totally off in trying to get someone like Ty to expand his horizons, while the Shaw clan teaches B.J. their culture is as valid as his upper crust circles in New York City. Without being blatantly political, Novak has made one of the better dramedies about America as it truly is today. We are quickly turning into social and political factions based on our geographic living spaces. “Laughter is something that brings us all together and this film is a real wild ride with an eccentric group of characters who hopefully spark a conversation,” says Holbrook about what he hopes is the wider rich of the film. “I hope it creates unity as it also inspires reflection. It’s good medicine for what we’re going through right now.”
“Vengeance” releases July 29 in theaters nationwide.