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‘Vengeance’ Is a Clever But Hollow Satire of Podcast Clichés

Photo: Courtesy of Patti Perret/Focus Features

vengeance gets in some good digs at its smug protagonist and the particular New York world he inhabits, but its best gag is front-loaded into one of its earliest scenes. The first we see of Ben Manalowitz (BJ Novak), he’s on the roof of the Dumbo rhizome of member’s-only Soho House, surveying the crowd and his contacts list for tonight’s likely prospects as the Brooklyn Bridge stretches out behind him. He and a buddy are commiserating over how unjustly maligned they are for their dating habits, which involve juggling a half-dozen women at a time and cutting out before the threat of intimacies like, say, knowing what someone’s parents do. It’s not that they’re afraid of commitment, Ben’s friend insists: “We’re afraid of commitment to something we can’t get out of.” In an exquisite touch, that friend happens to be singer-songwriter-fuckboy extraordinaire John Mayer, apparently playing himself.

Of course, Novak actually is friends with Mayer, who he met because of a music-licensing snafu on office. Like Ben, Novak did graduate from Harvard, which the movie pokes fun of when he and a Marfa music producer named Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher) talk about how they “went to college in New Haven” and “Boston.” In an alternate universe in which Novak didn’t head off to Los Angeles to work in film and television, he very well might have ended up at the new yorker, where Ben is a staffer (instead, he just did a “Shouts & Murmurs”). Ben is meant to be a self-lacerating figure with his obsession with status, his oblivious East Coast parochialism passing itself off as snobbery, and his lack of any deep and meaningful connections in his life. But vengeance, which Novak also wrote and which is his directorial debut, manages to be fitfully clever without drawing any blood. In fitting with its main character’s desperate aversion to vulnerability, vengeance squirms away from any satirical or emotional territory that might genuinely hurt.

So Ben has his high-profile magazine job, an apartment with a keyed elevator, and an active sex life, but what he wants is a podcast — the kind of podcast that would vault him into the next level of media fame. He has a lot of thoughts about the themes of this theoretical podcast, but when he pitches them to Eloise (Issa Rae), a prominent producer, she rightfully points out that he doesn’t have a story to tell. And then, suddenly, he does. He gets a call in the middle of the night from a distraught man named Ty (Boyd Holbrook), who turns out to be the brother of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), a half-remembered woman who rotated through Ben’s life at some point and who just died. Ty seems convinced that the two were in a relationship and refuses to take no for an answer, and so Ben gets on a plane and heads to West Texas, to a sun-blasted stretch of small town in between oil fields, to attend Abilene’s funeral her.

Abilene moved to New York to make a go at being a musician, but she was back home when she died of an opioid overdose while at a party. Ty tells Ben that it wasn’t an accident and that he wants help finding whoever was responsible for his sister’s death, and while Ben doesn’t believe him, he sells Eloise on the material, and she overnights him equipment so that he can start recording. The podcast Ben sets out to make is basically S-Town (“I will find this person, of this generalized societal force, and I will define it,” he vows), with Abilene’s death serving as the peg for an exploration of the region. Eloise’s team back in New York is more cynical about the endeavor; they give the project the temporary title of “Dead White Girl,” then brainstorm a list of names that includes “Douchebag Goes West” — not an inaccurate description for Ben’s fish-out-of-water antics as he navigates and talks down to the locals, including Abilene’s family, with whom he’s staying. But as his ventures into local color threaten to turn into a real case, his work and the film gather more urgency.

It’s not really enough, though. vengeance‘s problems are Ben’s — like the podcast, the film feels like it conceived its conclusions first, with characters doing whatever’s necessary to get the action there. The contrivances, from the fact that Ben gets on a plane in the first place to the later twists, would be forgivable if anyone in the film felt solid and rounded out and less like a contribution to Novak’s thesis. He gives good coastal elite, Novak, but his character from him does not really add up to more than a collection of jokes about blue-check clichés. And the Texans he meets (played by J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara, Eli Bickel, and Zach Villa, among others) are ultimately set up as sources of unexpected authenticity in a way that elides their own humanity. vengeance wants to say something about the take economy and how its fixation on the systemic often means that individual stories’ textures and weight get overlooked. But that remains an abstract point that the details of the movie, ironically, never really support. The jokes, for Novak, come easily. The heart, not so much.

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