by George Wolf
As you may have noticed, we’re living in extraordinary times. So when we’re looking back decades from now, what film commentaries will separate themselves as the most insightful of the day?
In the words of Sammy Hagar, only time will tell what stands the test of time. But there are two releasing just this week that seem like good bets to at least make the team picture.
Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay takes some satirical daggers to the social media age, while Vengeance broadens the focus for a lightly comical mystery with some hot button issues on its mind.
It’s the feature debut as writer and director for familiar face B. J. Novak, and it instantly marks him as a smart, sly, and entertaining storyteller.
Novak (Saving Mr. Banks, Inglourious Basterds, TV’s The Office) also stars as Ben, a writer for the New Yorker who wants to be more. He wants to be a “voice.” Fate steps in when he’s lured to West Texas after the fatal opioid overdose of his occasional hookup Abilene (Crazy, Stupid, Love‘s Lio Tipton). Abi may have been little more than a fling, but Abi’s family thinks she and Ben were a longtime committed couple.
They also think Abi was murdered, and when her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook, terrifically nutty) proposes a teamup to avenge Abi’s death, Ben seizes the chance to pitch a “Dead White Girl” true crime podcast to his editor Eloise (Issa Rae, always welcome).
Early on, Novak gets laughs from throwing a “hundred percent, hundred percent” New York hipster into the home of an eccentrically red state brood who will teach him many things about Texas, including what makes Whataburger so great.
“It’s right there!”
But as Ben starts piecing together Abi’s last days, and glimpsing her dreams of stardom with a local record producer (Ashton Kutcher, understated and better than he’s ever been), Novak begins weaving some impressive and resonant layers.
Speeches are made and then refuted. Stereotypes are outlined and defended, only to be punctured as Novak and Ben dig deeper, searching for the heart of a “new American reality” that took shape when truth became unacceptable.
From podcasts, conspiracy theories and hot takes to the ideological divide between coastal elites and country bumpkins, Vengeance sure feels like an authentic national portrait.
It’s also a funny and entertaining mystery caper, self-effacing but not afraid to wander into some dark places, with a social conscience that Novak reveals in organic and endearing ways. We are more just the record of ourselves in and around new media, and our evolving societal challenges deserve more than convenient cop-outs.
Sounds like a good start to Novak’s transition into filmmaking.