Oh the folly that Serial hath wrought. Vengeance enjoys a hearty laugh about the fact that seemingly everyone has a podcast these days. From influencers, celebrities, average Joes, aspiring detectives, and dudes in their basements, podcasting is where it’s at. Supposedly. Marketers and content producers seem to love the idea of people airing their feels into the airwaves. Slickly produced ’casts transform mundane events into multi-hour serials. Speakers wax poetic and get philosophical, and listeners’ minds are blown. A podcast about dating can have more tangential filler than a New Yorker article about orchids. Podcasts, Vengeance reminds us, are more often about the speaker than the subject. Sure, some ’casts seduce listeners with honey-timbered baritones that make sweet love to listeners’ ears, but others can be exceptionally grating, like a drill to the brain.
Enter Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak). Ben is a neurotic New York radio host scoping out the dating scene. He and his bud survey the options in the humorous opening sequence that sets up Vengeance for easy listening. The guys gab about dating and scroll through their phones. They reminisce about Tinder hook-ups, bathroom flings, and one-night stands slotted into their contact lists with first names, question marks, and vague references to place the time, event, or location of their conquests. They’re every right swipe’s worst nightmare.
Ben’s (very forgettable) friend remarks that their colloquial chitter-chatter ’bout the dating scene would make a sweet podcast. A podcast – what a novel idea! The dudes nod their heads and continue to bro-down. The friend “produces” the moment a bit by observing that this sort of sexy convo could use a good bass line. One kicks in on the soundtrack, courtesy of Finneas O’Connell, as the dudes offer vapid observations to a podcasty beat. Cue a hearty laugh from the critic.
Dead White Girl
Luckily for Ben, the morning after offers a hook that would make content producers drool. His phone awakens him with a startling message: his girlfriend is dead and the funeral’s in Texas. Ben, not wanting to offend the caller (her brother), doesn’t want to say that said dead girlfriend, Abiline (Lio Tipton), meant nothing beyond recreational fun. In true Hollywood logic, though, he hops a flight to Texas.
However, it turns out that Abiline’s family is a heehaw gang of gun-totin’ Whataburger-scarfin’ southerners. They’re plum characters full of conspiracy theories and unfiltered, uninformed takes. Moreover, Abiline’s brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), pitches Ben a vengeance mission to hunt down her alleged killer. Ben has a counter offer. He pitches his producer, Eloise (Issa Rae), an investigative story about a dead white girl and a nation in decline. Eloise greenlights Dead White Girl (working title) without blinking.
Ben soon starts playing Serial by interviewing Abiline’s family, which includes her modest mom (Succession’s J. Smith Cameron), air-head sisters (when Ben asks one how she takes it, referring to her coffee, she replies, “In the mouth”), and total crazy train of a grandmother (Louanne Stephens, inspiring one rich belly laugh after another). Dead White Girl, therefore, is an exercise in exploitation. It’s obvious from the outset that Ben latches onto the family’s pain to learn how, in his wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fornicating, he contributed to Abiline’s death. It’s a prototypical podcast about nothing and everything that over-interprets humdrum happenings into grandiose symbols and grains of bitter truth.
Vengeance takes Ben through a dark odyssey into a nation’s crumbling soul. There are moments of truly witty Coen Brothers-esque dialogue when the Texans cut their grits with bad takes and alternative facts. From Granny Carole’s revisionist take on the Alamo to a surprisingly eloquent Ashton Kutcher, Vengeance has a great eye for characters, even though they relish some unique local cuisine comprised of Fritos and nacho cheese that’s scarfed straight from the bag.
Vengeance remarkably captures America in the moment without explicitly placing the story in time or specifically naming the nutters who brought the nation to where it is today. It’s a tale of white boys who fail up and communities that fail their own kin. Written and directed by Novak in his feature debut, Vengeance harkens back to another era of black comedy. Tightly scripted, almost literary works like Vengeance aren’t made very often these days amid the glut of Marvel movies and recycled IP. Fuelled by a dark sense of humour, a spirited cast, and a wry self-deprecating take on an inexplicable phenomenon altering the mediascape, Vengeance offers a refreshing alternative even if the jokes and social musings miss the target almost as often as they hit the mark. There’s a lot of cringe-worthy embarrassment humour that’s hard to abide, but also witty repartee between actors that one rarely gets to enjoy at the movies these days.
Stuck in a ’Cast
However, the talkiness of the film almost nails its take on podcasting too perfectly. Vengeance could work just as easily as a podcast as it does as a film. In the opening scene, for example, I closed my eyes just as soon as the bass line dropped. It did indeed sound like a podcast. It was a spot on-parody of those ’casts that everyone makes nowadays. But when my eyes opened, the action on screen added little.
Novak’s premise and direction, moreover, finds itself trapped by the conceit. Vengeance largely plays out with two or three people in conversation through a series of interviews. They’re often staged outside in the Texas heat, physically distanced and COVID-safe. The blocking, unfortunately, is one of few elements that dates the film. The dialogue is often sharp and often funny, but Vengeance wouldn’t be too much of a different movie if you watched it in its entirety with your eyes closed. Maybe Novak should have just made a podcast, but then Vengeance would have been lost amid the cacophony of the ’casting void. More power to the theatrical experience, I guess.
Vengeance opens in theatres on July 29.