It’s a plot as old as plots: a city slicker comes to the countryside with preconceived notions about the rural folk and then finds that they’re smarter and better than his city friends (or, alternatively, that they’re just as venal as the people he left behind). Short-statured sitcom actor B.J. Novak portrays this city slicker in his directing debut Vengeance, a movie that transports him to West Texas, and if this satire isn’t entirely successful, there’s more than enough to suggest he has talent as a filmmaker.
Novak stars as Ben Manalowicz, who has secured his place as a staff writer for The New Yorker and now thinks of branching out into podcasting. His boss (Issa Rae) pointedly asks him what yet another middle-aged white guy could possibly have to say. His answer comes in the form of a distraught phone call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), whose sister Abilene (Lio Tipton) has died in her small town a five-hour drive from the Texas city she was named after. Ben and Abby slept together a few times while she was in the Big Apple pursuing dreams of music stardom, and she made it seem to her family that the two of them were much closer than they were. When Ben is guilted into traveling to Texas to attend her funeral, Ty seriously tells him that she didn’t die of an opioid overdose like the authorities say but was murdered by a conspiracy of Mexican drug cartels, pedophiles, and the deep state. A podcast is born, initially with the insensitive title Dead White Girl.
Speaking of insensitive, Ben plays along with the fiction that he and Abby were practically engaged, because he means to make fun of the paranoid rednecks or at least hold them up to ridicule while he investigates what makes them tick. His disillusionment plays out in humor that is admirably specific to the region: When Ben asks whether the city of Abilene is near Dallas, he receives the curt reply, “Dallas ain’t Texas.” Later on, at his literal first rodeo, he gives a big cheer for the University of Texas and quickly finds out he’s deep in Tech country. A local music producer (Ashton Kutcher, going for understatement for once) gestures at the blasted desert landscape and tells Ben, “People here have creative energies and nowhere to plug them in. It goes into conspiracy theories, drugs, and violence.” (The movie was actually filmed in the Albuquerque area, since you’re wondering.)
Yet the script doesn’t set out to absolve the Texans, either. For all the Christian paraphernalia in their house, the Shaws call Abby’s youngest brother El Stupido (Eli Bickel), and Ben is the only one who addresses the boy by his given name of Mason. The boy, in turn, gives him a vital piece of information that cracks the mystery. The family conceals an important piece of information from Ben, and the New Yorker finally explodes at them in that most Texas of locations, a Whataburger parking lot. To Ty’s defense that they followed their hearts, Ben says, “You follow your heart, the world is flat, and vaccines contain microchips.”
If only that line hadn’t come in the midst of a much longer speech. Novak the director lets Novak the writer go on for too long. The climactic confrontation with the villain of the piece really needed pruning, even if I’m chilled by nihilism of the bad guy’s thesis that America is the way it is because we’re all going to die someday and our social-media hot takes will be the only proof that we were ever here. Vengeance has more than a few amusing moments and was significantly better than I expected, but it still feels like the work of a beginner who has more to learn.