Late last night I streamed B.J.Novak‘s Vengeance (for $20 bills!) and was seriously, genuinely impressed. How the hell did the Blumhouse animals get involved with this? It’s way, way above their usual crude-horror level. And at the same time it’s a Focus Features release, and I was asking myself “what the hell happened with the marketing on this thing?” I’d barely heard of it until Sasha Stone urged me to see it yesterday afternoon.
The Texas-based Vengeance is VERY sharp and savvy, and at the same time one of those rare films with the capacity to settle down and “listen to the grass grow” (a line from Hud, another rural Texas drama) and even feel a semblance of generosity and human compassion for the lives and values of red-state primitives, which is to say folks who aren’t so appalling once you get to know them. Come to think of it I don’t just mean the Texas rurals but also Novak’s “Ben Manalowitz”, whom we also get to know in ways we don’t see coming.
This semi-dweeby 30something who’s played by the star (as well as the director and screenwriter) is a bright, low-key, entirely rational Brooklyn horndog type, way ahead of himself in some ways and at the same time on the emotionally stunted side, and what he experiences in Vengeance is part Brigadoon, part Local Hero and part…well, not quite The Long Goodbye but something that certainly flirts with that realm.
My initial assessment was to call Vengeance a culture-clash dramedy — an extremely social-media-attuned Brooklyn hipster & writer/podcaster & hook-up artist vs. more-than-initially meets-the-eye, family-anchored rurals in Bumblefuck, Texas.
Except it’s not really a “dramedy.” The satirical humor is so dry and under-stated and nuanced and even drill-bitty at times, punctuated as it occasionally is by curiously wise reflections about liberal social media perceptions and ways of living and relating that one could describe as empty or at least lacking in a smartphone-oriented sense vs. under-educated, trailer-park Whataburger Texas primitives, and delivered with a near-total absence of conventional schtick that I didn’t know where to put it.
But I knew for sure that I was watching something real and refreshing. Plus it conveys a learning curve and emotional growth on Novak’s part. And it gives Ashton Kutcher his best-written, most quietly charismatic role ever.
The problem comes at the very end when Novak delivers a surprise ending that was seemingly stolen from, as mentioned, Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye, and I’m telling you that it really, REALLY doesn’t work, even though Novak declares early on that he’s not a Texas-styled vengeance type of guy, which is a set-up for an ironic finale. Ben Manalowitz isn’t Shane or Charles Bronson in Death Wish, and there’s no way a guy like this will suddenly morph into an angel of moral justice…no way in hell. I would go so far as to call what I’m half-describing as a train-wreck ending, although Novak manages it throw in a few grace notes after the big surprise. There were four or five ways to go at the very end, and Novak chose the absolute worst option.
That aside (and it’s only a short bit at the very end), Vengeance is WELL worth seeing and thinking about the next day, I’m actually considering giving it a re-watch later this week. There’s no question that Vengeance, which sounds like a primitive actioner in the Mel Gibson mode, is a completely shitty title considering what it’s actually about. Whoever said “wait, let’s call it Vengeance!” should be put into a paddock for seven days and be made to suffer the ridicule of being hit with tomatoes and rotten bananas. Okay, that might be too harsh. But they should at least go on an apology tour and try to explain what their thinking was.
One small thing: Within the Texas family that Ben Manalowitz spends a fair amount of time with is a foxy airhead-y teenage blonde, played by Dove Cameron. Her character, “Kansas City Shaw”, just wants to be “famous”, she says, and for a while you’re thinking “okay, where’s this going to go?” Is she going to hit on Ben in hopes of his inviting her to visit Brooklyn? (She delivers a line early on that alludes to oral predilection.) Is she going to post Instagram videos of herself interacting with Ben or something? But nothing happens. We all like hot blondies but Novak drops her like a bad habit. There’s a second-act family feast scene at Whataburger, and we can see the back of Cameron’s blonde head, but Novak doesn’t give her a line or even a quick insert close-up. She’s part of the family but has been, in a manner of speaking, erased. A curious call.