Vengeance (CREDIT: Patti Perret/Focus Features)

Starring: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Dove Cameron, J. Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara, Ashton Kutcher, Lio Tipton, Eli Abrams Bickel, John Mayer

Director: B.J. Novak

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Bursts of Language and Violence

Release Date: July 29, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: New York-based journalist Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) would really love to host a podcast that gets people talking. If you’ve ever met someone whose response to listening to Serial was “I could do that!”, then you know the kind of guy we’re dealing with here. As serendipity would have it, he gets a call from the family of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), an old hookup of his. They inform him that she’s died of an overdose, as they’ve confused him for a serious boyfriend, so he suddenly finds himself flying down to Texas for the funeral. Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suspects that there’s more to the story, so he recruits Ben into his plan to track down who’s really responsible and deliver some Lone Star-style vengeance. And so, Ben now has his podcast premise: a probing examination into the American opioid crisis through the lens of conspiracy theories that are more comforting than the truth.

What Made an Impression?: If that synopsis has you screaming, “This sounds like the most insufferable movie ever!!!”, I can see where you’re coming from. But those alarm bells should be tempered by the creative guiding hand of Novak, who writes, directs, and stars. But maybe you’re worried that even a self-aware version of this story would still be pretty insufferable. Understandable! But here’s the thing: it’s all played pretty sincerely. This isn’t satire, but rather, an engrossing tale of a messy tragedy. Ben certainly starts off a little condescending, but he allows himself to be drawn into Abilene’s family. They have their fair share of Deep South middle-of-nowhere quirks, but they also have access to modern amenities, so they know what’s what in the 21st century. (If you were looking for something more mean-spirited, you can at least relish John Mayer’s self-mocking cameo as himself.) Ben is won over by the clan, and he eventually gets drawn in enough to realize that Abilene really doesn’t seem like the type of girl who would have OD’d and that her death indeed warrants further investigation.

In a very strongly cast movie, the one performance in Vengeance that really blew me away was a career-best turn from Ashton Kutcher as local record producer Quinten Sellers. He could easily have more clients in a bigger city, but he’s an idealist who doesn’t want to see talent go to waste in this little town. Ben is all ready to dismiss him as a flim-flam man, but Quinten wins him over with a stunning monologue about how writers are the translators of life. (I was inspired quite a bit as well!) I’ve never seen Kutcher’s charm put to such profound use before, and it’s kind of intoxicating.

While most of Vengeance is disarmingly openhearted, it ultimately barrels forward to a sour, ugly conclusion befitting its title. That doesn’t negate all the hope-filled moments that preceded it, but it does cast a pall over the optimistic scenes. I’m not going to dismiss the whole movie for that questionable swerve, but it is worth noting that it’s stuck in my craw despite my generally satisfied experience.

Vengeance is Recommended If You Like: Looking past stereotypes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Whataburgers