‘Vengeance’: Many funny moments in B.J. Novak’s satire of a connected but disconnected world

The ‘Office’ alum plays a New Yorker sensing a podcast opportunity in the death of a Texas woman he barely knew.

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When Ty (Boyd Holbrook, left) suspects his sister’s death was a murder, Ben (B.J. Novak) sets out to prove it on a podcast in “Vengeance.”

Focus Features

They had a story arc on “The Office” in which B.J. Novak’s duplicitous and disdainful hipster Ryan somehow got promoted way up the corporate ladder and moved to New York, where he proceeded to become an even bigger jerk, got hooked on drugs and was eventually arrested for committing corporate fraud. In writer-director-star Novak’s scathing social satire “Vengeance,” he plays a character who isn’t all that different from Ryan—only this guy might be even more cynical, more immersed in his smart phone, more of an opportunistic narcissist.

It’s a smart and insightful performance in a film that has a lot to say about the personal disconnect we feel in today’s Wi-Fi world; the stereotypes held by Blue Staters about Red Staters and vice versa, and the manner in which millions of us consider every waking moment as potential material, to be memorialized in a selfie or a tweet or a Tik-Tok video or a podcast. At times Novak the writer-director is shooting fish in a barrel, but those fishies are worthy targets.

Novak’s Ben Manalowitz is a sardonic writer for the New Yorker who gets a call in the middle of the night from someone who tells him his girlfriend Abilene has overdosed and died, and the family is hoping he’ll attend the funeral in West Texas. This comes as a huge surprise to Ben, seeing as he had just a couple of casual hookups with Abilene and barely remembers her. Nevertheless—and here’s where we have to take a generous leap of faith—Ben agrees to attend the funeral, and the next thing you know it he’s spending time with Abilene’s family, including her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook), who is convinced Abilene has been murdered, possibly by a cartel.

‘Vengeance’

Untitled

Focus Features presents a film written and directed by B.J. Novak. Rated R (for language and brief violence). Running time: 107 minutes. Opens Thursday in local theaters.

Light bulb moment. Ben calls his friend Eloise (Issa Rae), who runs a trendy podcast company, and pitches a meta, true-crime series about a Dead White Girl. He ingratiates himself into the family by fake-sincerely saying, “I will find [the killer], or this generalized societal force. And I will define it.”

As Ben finds himself continually surprised when members of Abilene’s family prove to be smarter and more worldly than he expected, “Vengeance” plays out like a 21st century version of a Preston Sturges film. There are some great comedic moments, as when “Deep In the Heart of Texas” plays at a rodeo and Ben is caught using the Shazam app to identify it, and, like Ben, we get to know more about Abilene (played by Lio Tipton) in video snippets, who was a lot more complicated than even her family knew.

Then there’s the local music producer Quentin Sellers, a charismatic figure who dresses like a cowboy cult leader, spins New Age wisdom like it is cotton candy and is either brilliant or a con man or maybe both. Ashton Kutcher is so effective playing Sellers, I’d watch an entire movie about this character’s back story. It’s mesmerizing work in a film that constantly surprises us, and mostly in a good way.

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