Rated R. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner Theatre, AMC South Bay and suburban theaters.
B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance,” which he wrote, directed and stars in, begins with Toby Keith’s country ode “Red Solo Cup” and on the dubious premise that Ben Manalowitz (Novak), a New York City native and writer for the New Yorker, would drop everything to go to the heart of Texas to the funeral of a woman named Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), whom he hooked up with in New York, but hardly knew. Is this something Ben could use for the podcast he hosts, edited by fellow NYC hipster Eloise (Issa Ray)? In an opening scene, Ben can be heard discussing dating “options” and “commitment” with a male friend played by uber-player John Mayer.
Ben lands in Texas, where he is met at the gate by the deceased young woman’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook), who immediately spouts conspiracy theories about the real cause of his sister’s death by overdose. “Remember the Alamo” is still a call to arms in these parts. Why does Ben claim not to know who won the battle? Inspired by the “quality” of the writing that Ben’s trip inspires, Eloise tells him to go ahead and, “Get the story and stay safe.” “In that order?” Ben responds facetiously. Ben calls his story “Dead White Girl.” At the funeral, where he is forced awkwardly to speak, but pulls it off, Ben also meets Abilene’s heartbroken mother (J. Smith Cameron), spunky grandmother, sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron) and little brother El Stupido aka Mason (Eli Bickel).
“Vengeance” is a riff on red-state, blue-state culture clash and the kind of darkly comic, super-smart, politically and culturally charged murder mystery written by someone who has spent hours poring over the work of Thomas Pynchon (“Gravity’s Rainbow”). The Shaws adopt the young man with the funny name from New York City. They make him stay in Abilene’s room.
When asked what his favorite Liam Neeson film is, Ben says, “Schindler’s List,” which is the Shaws’ least favorite (Ben’s Jewishness does not come up, but bubbles beneath the surface). Ben name drops “In Cold Blood,” hoping that West Texas will be his 1950s Kansas. Ben is narrow-shouldered with a large head and big expressive eyes. He learns quickly that law enforcement is different in West Texas, divided between local, county, Border Patrol and Highway Patrol. Civilians carry guns. Ben, whose only previous trip to Texas was to Austin for “South-by” (“Austin ain’t Texas,” granny crows), has never been in a fight. This is the land of the deep-fried Twinkie and Frito Pie, rodeos and honkytonks. The only podcast these Texans ever heard of is Joe Rogan’s.
Novak makes way too big a deal out of why the Shaws prefer to go to the local Whataburger instead of the McDonald’s or Burger King. In researching his story, Ben interviews Quinten Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), the tall, teary-eyed, cowboy hat-sporting owner of the local recording studio, where Abilene used to work. Sellers turns out to be something of a sage. Everyone insists that Abilene wouldn’t take “so much as an Advil.” How could she have overdosed? Her body was found at the site of a regular, drug-fueled “after party,” where oil derricks bob like woodpeckers against the starry Texas sky. Novak (“The Office”) is good with the witticisms, but doesn’t really connect with anyone else. As the grieving mother, Cameron is the one you wish you knew better. But by the time we get to the end of this murderous rodeo, I was not at all sure it was worth the wait.
“Vengeance” contains profanity and violence.