Podcasting and television have some mutual compatibilities: Podcasts become TV shows, TV shows inspire watch-along podcasts, and just about everyone loves the half-spoof/half-tribute pulled off by Only Murders in the Building. Podcasts and movies aren’t quite so chummy. Plenty of podcasts talk about cinema, but apart from the occasional sneering joke (like the nerdy audio-obsessed character Podcast in Ghostbusters: Afterlife) the minutiae of podcasting generally seems beneath the interest of most movies. That emphatically isn’t the case with B.J. Novak’s new thriller, Vengeance, which may include more details about the podcasting process than any mainstream movie that isn’t a documentary.
It’s not that podcasting is truly a passion for New York City writer Ben Manalowitz (Novak). It’s more of an item on a checklist for a successful, young-ish big-city media person. Ben is already a contributor to The New Yorker (not, as he keeps correcting people, New York Magazine), but he hungers for a next step. When he corners successful podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae) at a party, he wants to pitch something for her NPR-like company — even though he doesn’t really have a concrete story in mind.
But a story falls into his lap due to a mishap from another form of checklisting: Ben’s indulgence in hookup culture, evident from his first scene of banter with a friend played by musician John Mayer. Ben gets a call from the family of Abilene (Lio Tipton), informing him that his girlfriend has died. The catch is, Abilene wasn’t Ben’s girlfriend, just a casual hookup he barely knew. At the insistence of Abilene’s brother Ty (Sandman villain Boyd Holbrook), Ben heads to Texas for Abilene’s funeral, where the rest of her family insists that her death could not have been an accidental overdose as the police claim.
Ben doubts that’s true, while also figuring that the family’s delusions of a vast, murderous conspiracy might be the grabby podcast topic he’s been looking for. Though initially wary of him, Eloise agrees, and Ben begins investigating Abilene’s life and death.
The intriguing queasiness of this situation mirrors the movie itself, which attempts to mine both fish-out-of-water comedy and a genuine sense of mystery from Ben’s bumbling but not entirely incapable sleuthing. Novak is eager to show he’s in on the joke of Ben’s East Coast condescension to the point of giving Abilene’s family little “gotcha” moments of awareness, just to show how non-stereotypical they are.
At the same time, the movie periodically reminds the audience that yes, guns and fast food are a major part of the Texas crowd’s American life. The fact that Ben himself is self-conscious about his possible East Coast condescension adds another layer — and so does the fact that he engages in it anyway. But those extra layers don’t necessarily enrich the experience of watching the movie. Eventually, Vengeance starts to feel a bit like a distended meme, tracking the gifted-kid-to-compromised-murder-investigator pipeline.
Even so, the movie isn’t easy to dismiss. Its awkward comedy is often funny, and its shadowy mystery is compelling, because Abilene’s death does become more of an enigma to Ben as he learns more about her. Performers as eclectic as Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara, and Ashton Kutcher all do their best to bring these potentially elusive characters to life.
But Novak, self-aware as he is in the starring role, creates a kind of void at the center of the story. This may be intentional, and could even be read as self-lacerating, given all of his contradictions: Ben is callous, but not heartless; smart, but far from brilliant; successful, but enormously privileged. What he lacks is the kind of charismatic slickness that would make him a more entertaining and unnerving figure. His affable blandness eventually curtails the movie’s greater ambitions.
Novak may be after something more nuanced here than a story about an East Coaster getting a new understanding of the South. Certainly Ben’s less ostentatious, more insidious style exists in the world of New York media, and would be easy to mistake for learned sensitivity, especially during a one-night stand. Vengeance, though, is not a one-night stand, and its attempts to engineer a greater moral awakening for Ben fall flat.
At first, it seems like the movie might treat podcasting as a sour punchline — a stand-in for Ben’s empty, self-impressed striving. By the end, the movie addresses bigger ideas than mere podcasting. At times, Vengeance appears to be aiming for omnidirectional satire with a dash of empathy, like the films of Alexander Payne. More often, though, it resembles a hall of mirrors, with a bunch of culture-clash illusions waving at each other in self-aware acknowledgment.
Vengeance will debut in theaters on July 29.