Over the past decade, the medium of podcasts has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, attracting celebrities, journalists, and everyday people due to the relative freedom the platform provides. As podcasting has grown bigger, it has naturally seeped into other mediums, with the show Only Murders in the Building being the latest and greatest example.
Now, actor/writer/director B.J. Novak has made what might be the definitive movie about podcasting with Vengeance. An unrepentant serial dater, Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is a writer/aspiring podcaster in New York City who pitches his ideas to Eloise (Issa Rae), a producer at a podcasting company.
When Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), a girl Ben had dated casually, dies of a drug overdose, Ben’s presence on her social media leads her family to assume they were more serious than they were. Guilted into coming to her funeral in Texas, Ben soon finds himself drawn into their world, especially when Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suggests that Abilene’s death was not accidental. He starts recording everything to not only get to the bottom of the potential mystery, but to document a way of life he knows little about.
The film, the first movie written and directed by Novak, has an interesting tone. It’s not a full-on comedy, although there are a lot of comedic moments. While it has some heartfelt scenes in its relatively short 94 minutes, the inherent cynicism of Ben keeps it from becoming too sentimental. And the story introduces a degree of mystery, but it never becomes consumed by that part.
What Novak seems interested in more than anything is examining the way people from different parts of the country interact. While perhaps not the most profound investigation of the human condition ever put on screen, the film is much deeper than one might expect. Novak doesn’t eschew Texas stereotypes like religion, guns, and Whataburger, but he doles them out in small increments, focusing more on who people are than what they represent.
And so while Abilene’s sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron) are seemingly shallow on the surface, they also are worldly enough to know about the works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a small-town record producer with whom Abilene worked, gives off a creepy vibe, but he’s also among the most erudite people in the whole film.
Novak obviously knows what type of role fits him best, and he does extremely well as the jaded-but-curious Ben. Holbrook steals the film as Ty, a potentially one-note character that becomes much more in his hands. Rae makes the most of a part that has her mostly talking on the phone. And all of the actors who make up Abilene’s family provide nice color to the story.
Vengeance is much tamer than its title would suggest, and it’s all the better for it. It does what podcasts often do best, diving deep into a particular aspect of American life, providing revelations that can surprise both the podcaster and the audience.
Vengeance opens in theaters on July 29.