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Review: ‘Vengeance’ kills on the big screen

“Vengeance” was written by its star B.J. Novak (from the NBC sitcom “The Office”) in his directorial debut. The dark comedy is about a journalist for The New Yorker capitalizing on a casual hookup’s death for a new story or podcast but her family believes he is her boyfriend.

A skull of a longhorn leans against a tree next to a pair of cowboy boots.
A skull of a longhorn leans against a tree next to a pair of cowboy boots.
Contributed / Greg Wilson via Unsplash.com
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BAXTER — “Vengeance,” as the saying goes, “is a dish best served cold.” But according to the new movie of the same name, maybe it would be better served in Texas.

“Vengeance” is a dark comedy about a journalist for The New Yorker who suddenly finds himself embroiled in a revenge plot by the grieving brother of a woman the reporter once hooked up with casually in a sexual encounter.

“Vengeance” is playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and stars B.J. Novak stars in the new release that he wrote and made for Blumhouse Productions, a film company known mainly for its horror movies, such as the “Paranormal Activity,” the “Insidious” and “The Purge” franchises.

It is a horror of another type that is on display, however, in the R-rated “Vengeance,” a two-hour movie about the horrors of, say, barely knowing one another in an increasingly divided society, of conspiracy theories replacing facts and of violence as a replacement for civil discourse.

Texas flag blowing in the breeze
Contributed / Joshua J. Cotten via Unsplash.com

Novak's character Ben Manalowitz suddenly and unexpectedly receives a call — after bedding down with yet another woman in his East Coast apartment — from stranger Ty Shaw, informing the confused and startled single writer that Shaw’s sister died of an apparent drug overdose.

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Manalowitz scrambles to piece together what Shaw, played as a rural Texan by Boyd Holbrook, is telling him in the middle of the night or early morning hours about the dead sister; Manalowitz hastily scrolls through his social media accounts and contacts to recall the deceased.

Manalowitz humorously responds with inoffensive platitudes on the phone, as delicately as he can, to Shaw’s desperate requests that Manalowitz attend the upcoming funeral of his sister Abilene Shaw by flying down to a remote part of Texas the surviving Shaw family calls home.

Manalowitz initially rebuffs the brother’s invitation to show up at such a personal event as a funeral for a woman he barely knows. But the sobbing and inconsolable brother is relentless in his invitation and insists Manalowitz be with the Shaw family in this time of personal sadness.

The opportunistic Manalowitz, however, has a change of heart when he comes to the epiphany that the whole situation would make great fodder for an Americana story or at least what he hopes will be a trendy podcast and agrees to appear at the funeral for the young woman.

MORE MOVIE COLUMNS BY FRANK LEE:
“See How They Run” is a satiric Agatha Christie-like mystery/thriller of a whodunit costarring Sam Rockwell as a boozy inspector, and Saoirse Ronan as an enthusiastic rookie constable trying to solve the murder of a crew of a popular play in 1950s London.

A comedy of cultures clashing ensues as one can imagine from such a movie premise but Novak, who moviegoers may remember from his appearance on the NBC sitcom “The Office” with its star Steve Carell, seems to have more on his mind than simply just a cultural divide.

“Everyone was meant to be a three-dimensional person with a viewpoint that the person could put their heart behind. … But this movie really respects all its characters, even if they’re getting laughs or they have a point of view that seems a little out there,” Novak tells Forbes magazine.

The Jewish Manalowitz from the blue state of New York is soon in the Deep South, like an embedded reporter, in the red state of Texas where guns are aplenty, cowboy hats and boots are not fashion accessories but essentials, football is king, and rodeos and line dancing are social events.

“What worked its way in was the unexpected warmth of the people who were so intimidating from a distance … like everything’s bigger in Texas, Don’t Mess with Texas, the guns, the trucks, and yet the feeling once you’re there was so amazingly warm and welcoming,” Novak stated in Forbes.

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The film’s tone could be a bit disconcerting at times with its ambitious goal to be a comedy, a murder mystery, a satire or commentary on popular culture, a thriller and a drama all wrapped up in one. But moviegoers will then probably find something to like in Novak’s directorial debut.

Frank Lee
Frank Lee

“Vengeance” currently holds a 79% approval rating among critics and an 85% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The consensus from the critics at RottenTomatoes.com: “Writer-director-star B.J. Novak could have taken a sharper approach to this dark comedy's deeper themes, but if you're in the mood for a slyly smart mystery, ‘Vengeance’ is yours.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bdfilmforum .

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I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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