*. Vengeance was the directorial debut of B. J. Novak, who also wrote and stars in the film. Novak is probably best known for his turn in the American version of The Office, and while it might be lazy to draw a connecting line from that show to this I think the shoe in this case fits.
*. So the basic idea here is the sane person surrounded by madness and idiots. Novak is the straight man in this case, a New York City player and podcaster named Ben Manalowitz. He’s looking for a catchy project to break into the podcast big leagues and one lands on his plate when a girl named Abilene who he’d hooked up with is found dead down in Texas. Abilene’s brother calls Ben up and insists he come to the funeral. At first reluctant, Ben soon sees this as a possible break when the brother explains how he thinks Abilene was killed by a drug cartel.
*. An aside: podcaster is the new freelancer now. And it’s potentially even more lucrative. Though I’ve never been a big fan of podcasts myself. Aren’t they just blogs for people who don’t read?
*. The set-up is an old story: the bit-city type who ends up out in the boonies trying to relate to some heartland hicks who he begins by mocking and then comes to like and respect. Because Ben himself isn’t just a fish out of water but someone who has to learn a lot himself. Like what the Alamo was and how important it is to have real relations with people.
*. If that were all that there was to Vengeance it would be thin gruel indeed. It’s not hard to stay a half-hour or more ahead of the plot and the jokes really aren’t that funny. But Vengeance is still an interesting movie for one performance and one new wrinkle it gives to the old story.
*. The performance is by Ashton Kutcher as a sinister record producer who had a connection to Abilene. I really haven’t followed Kutcher’s career at all, and was surprised at how well he plays here. He’s not an evil or malignant force so much as a phony who’s dangerous precisely for being so weak. We don’t get the sense that there’s any substance behind him. He is all hat and no cowboy, which in turn fits perfectly with the wrinkle I mentioned.
*. That wrinkle has to do with the way the dichotomy between country and city, real people and fake, is transposed into the digital realm. In a moment that recalls the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead” (honest!) there’s a leitmotif about how we are all turning into ghosts in the age of social media. None of us, New Yorkers or Texans, have any substance anymore. We’ve gone from being people to characters, and type characters at that. Even the stories we tell and the songs we sing are ethereal, ephemeral, existing only (for a time) in the cloud. Fame is viral, a fever that runs hot and then breaks, leaving us diminished or dead.
*. This is a point that I wish had been pushed a little further and made a little darker, as it’s the real message of the movie. Unfortunately there’s a tug toward predictable comic situations and at times the plot seemed rushed and forced together. I didn’t buy Ben turning against the family in the restaurant parking lot at all, and then it got worse when he actually returns to sleep at their house. This seemed highly improbable, like it was just meant to end the second act and prepare us for the climactic showdown without slowing things down. Which, of course, it was.
*. Vengeance is a low-budget movie without huge ambitions. The form it takes is hokey and most of the humour feels played, but there’s a timely idea behind it that’s developed in a creative and intelligent way. If you’re not expecting even that much, and I wasn’t, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.