Vengeance: I Can’t See Anyone Else Smiling in Here, by David Bax
It’s no new insight to point out how often the best and funniest satire comes from those within the sphere at which the satire is aimed. B.J. Novak (the Harvard-educated comic, author and television writer) certainly knows the world of urbane, lefty Twitter-addicts his directorial debut, Vengeance, singles out for exposure, guys like his character, Ben, who refer to people with online clout as “blue checkmarks” and whose standard note of agreement is a tossed off, “hundred percent.” But Vengeance also displays the downside to being among those you’re ridiculing, the temptation to not only temper the mockery but to self-aggrandize by making a display of faux-humility.
Plotwise, though, Vengeance has a hell of a hook. Ben is a lothario who is not so much afraid of commitment as he is disdainful of it. When one of the names in his virtual little black book turns up dead in her tiny Texas hometown, though, Ben discovers that she’s been telling her whole family that he’s her boyfriend. When the woman’s brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), calls to ask Ben to come to the funeral, he at least feels enough shame to not say no, though he probably wishes he had once he finds himself on the other side of the planet, culturally.
That’s a good enough premise for a fish out of water comedy so it’s even more intriguing to realize that Vengeance is actually a murder mystery. But, of course, it’s still a satire and the great cast–which also includes Issa Rae as Ben’s boss back home in New York, Lio Tipton as the late Abby in flashbacks and J. Smith-Cameron as Abby’s mother–are often frustratingly locked in to only embodying that which their character represents within the argument writer/director Novak is trying to make. That’s how we arrive at the unlikely fact of the film’s best performance being given by Ashton Kutcher as the small town’s philosophical Svengali. All Kutcher has to do is be charismatically weird in a great big cowboy hat to walk away with the movie.
Meanwhile, Novak, who tends to funniest when he’s curt and stonefaced, repeatedly positions himself as the movie’s impassioned monologist. Politically and intellectually, Vengeance is not a tough nut to crack but that doesn’t stop Novak, as Ben, from laying it out in hokey, high school valedictorian speeches about divisions and disconnections between Americans.
When Vengeance isn’t about Ben speechifying to the rural folk, it’s about him patting himself on the back for being openminded enough to learn from them. It’s always in one mode of condescension or the other. Opening the film with Toby Keith’s awful, pandering earworm “Red Solo Cup” is likely meant to be ironic but there’s a comparable level of cynicism between the song and the movie.
Vengeance has the same fundamental flaw as Pulp’s hipster karaoke fave “Common People,” a song that tries to chastise those who would romanticize the poor by doing just that. The film is pretty much exactly the thing it’s supposed to be lampooning.