Vengeance Review: BJ Novak's Terminally Online Podcaster Stumbles Into A Darkly Comic Crime Thriller [Tribeca]

"I'm not in a Liam Neeson movie."

But in "Vengeance," B.J. Novak's terminally online podcaster Ben Manalowitz finds himself in something resembling a Liam Neeson movie — or, at least, an introvert's idea of a Liam Neeson movie. But this movie won't end how you, or Ben, expect it to end.

A funny, cutting, and self-deprecating new media satire, "Vengeance" is the feature directorial debut of Novak, who makes a case for being one of the more promising actors to make the transition behind the camera. While Novak struggles with his double duties (he's clearly one of the weaker actors in the ensemble here), he shows a keen instinct for pitch-black character-driven comedy, even if he never is quite able to go deeper than surface level.

Novak stars in "Vengeance" as Ben Manalowitz, a "check-mark certified" New Yorker writer and wannabe podcaster who spends his time perusing dating apps and mixing up his hook-ups, when he's not trying to pitch his latest podcast idea to successful podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae). He wants to make a difference, wants to make his mark, but mostly he wants that fame and success that comes with hitting the zeitgeist. He doesn't listen, of course, when Eloise tells him that "not every white guy needs a podcast" — a delusion that carries him through a strange twist of fate when he gets a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night.

After one of his latest casual hook-ups (a blonde that he had labeled as "brunette" in his phone, which he tries to coolly play off despite his confusion), Ben gets a call from a man with a deep Texas drawl who bursts into tears and tells him, "Your girlfriend's dead." This naturally confuses Ben, who has no girlfriend he is aware of, but recognizes the name that the weeping man on the other end of the phone is babbling: Abilene (Lio Tipton, smiling and beatific in all old, wistful video appearances), a girl he had hooked up with a few times. But before he can clear things up, Ben finds himself on his way to West Texas, attending the funeral of a girl he barely knows, whose family believes him to be the love of her life. As if this turn of events couldn't get any weirder, Abilene's brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook, luxuriating in his deep-fried Southern accent and having a blast) takes Ben aside to tell him that he believes Abilene didn't die of an accidental opioid overdose. She was murdered. And they're going to seek vengeance for her.

This is America

It cannot be stressed enough how out of his depth Ben is, both in this dusty Texas town in the middle of nowhere and in this dark vengeance plot that Ty has cooked up. He relates to people through jokey references to Twitter, or through absurdly obscure new media references that can only be made by a person who is terminally online. It's embarrassing, it's hilarious, and it's the kind of biting satire where the film succeeds — playing into its black comedy, lined with sentimental edges.

The film takes a premise that feels like it's out of an "SNL" skit: a New York journalist attends the funeral of a former hook-up and winds up in a vengeance plot, which he then decides to turn into a true-crime podcast. But "Vengeance" manages to make a meal of that absurd plot, even if that meal is a little greasy, a little undercooked, and not quite fulfilling. But it does have a nice kick.

Novak is clearly strongest when he's making Ben the butt of the joke, his tragically metropolitan ways clashing with the salt-of-the-earth Texans he encounters — and keeps trying to get good soundbites out of. As a director, he skillfully points out the exploitative nature of these kinds of podcasts, and revels in the crime-thriller turns that the film makes. As an actor and writer, he struggles with some of the dramatic choices the film makes — the film glibly (a little too glibly) touches on topics like the opioid epidemic and conspiracy theories in an "oh we already know this stuff" kind of way; and when Ben is confronted with some harsh truths, Novak has a little trouble with the emotionality. (J. Smith-Cameron, who plays the family matriarch, and Holbrook end up doing a lot of heavy lifting in these more dramatic scenes.)

Flaws aside, "Vengeance" is a wry and darkly funny debut for the director, thanks to an absurd premise and committed performances from Holbrook and Ashton Kutcher, the latter of whom plays a fantastically creepy music producer with just the right amount of "cult leader" energy. And "Vengeance" manages to balance its self-effacing and sentimental tones in a way that is extremely satisfying and entertaining to watch.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10