B.J. Novak Heads Down to Texas to Orchestrate Some Vengeance

1 Comment

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

This Is a Movie Review: Wilson

Leave a comment

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2017.

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer

Director: Craig Johnson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Fun-Loving Sociopathy

Release Date: March 24, 2017 (Limited)

If you found out that you had a daughter that you thought was aborted but was actually given up for adoption, would you track her down to cheer her on from afar like a proud papa? If so, that is an understandable instinct, but you might want to be discrete, considering the typical legal arrangements that prevent birth parents from contacting their adopted children. But Wilson the movie and Wilson the Woody Harrelson-portrayed title character have no such reservations. Instead, this father introduces himself to his long-lost daughter by mercilessly beating up her bullies.

Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay), Wilson the film at first glance appears to be a Misanthropist’s Guide to Life. But while Wilson the man does have major problems with humankind’s typical priorities, he actually does like people. He just wishes they would not so readily buy into the boring routine that society prescribes. His love is a playfully confrontational one. Plenty of people adopt a cutesy singsong voice when talking to dogs; but it is those few among us like Wilson who use that voice to spout some insane life philosophy. Or at least, it sounds like insanity to everyone else, but for him, it is the only way to be.

Harrelson emphasizes Wilson’s fun-loving nature; his joy is infectious, but also dangerous. He can string you along for a weekend getaway, or a delightful afternoon at the park, but he could also lead you behind bars. The legal troubles that bedevil Wilson feel unfair, but also perfectly understandable. Whatever dichotomy there appears to be here is less a contradiction and more a yin/yang. Wilson is not railing against phonies – he just wants everyone to loosen up. His film is a slightly unnerving adventure, but you gotta come along for the ride, man.

Wilson is Recommended If You LikeFight Club But Wish It Were More Slice-of-Life, EnlightenedNebraska

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cute Dogsitters