The protagonist of “Vengeance,” B.J. Novak’s delightfully sly directorial debut, isn’t a guy I’d be keen to encounter out on the town. Arrogant and allergic to romantic commitment, Ben Manalowitz is a hotshot New Yorker magazine writer whose career success and playboy lifestyle have convinced him he’s invincible — and worthy of veneration. Stop him at a party and you can be sure he’ll spend the conversation scanning the room for someone more important to talk to.
That Novak casts himself as this lead wisenheimer is, well, wise; the Newton-born writer and actor famous for his role on “The Office” has always had a knack for skewering his own sensibilities. In “Vengeance,” Novak proves his chops both as an adept filmmaker and skillful satirist of contemporary mores.
Some of those mores are metropolitan. Take the opening scene: Ben and a friend (John Mayer) compare the hordes of women they have saved in their phones for casual hook-ups. Among them is “Brunette Random House Party,” but neither can tell whether the label refers to the book publisher or a plain old house party. Later, on a Soho House rooftop, Ben pitches an audio producer on his theory about the splintering of American identity. In this niche media empire, Ben is king; his scepter is his blue Twitter checkmark.
But soon, the movie veers away from highbrow Manhattan and toward unexpected territory in the sticks of Texas. After Ben receives a call that his “girlfriend” died unexpectedly, he travels to a remote desert hamlet for the funeral. The late woman in question, an aspiring singer named Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), was one of Ben’s many flings; evidently, she had believed the relationship to be far more serious than he had.
Ben would have been in and out of Texas if it weren’t for Abilene’s brother, the hotheaded Ty (Boyd Holbrook), voicing his conviction that Abilene’s death wasn’t an accidental overdose, but a murder. Catching the whiff of an intriguing true-crime yarn, Ben stays on with the Shaw family and starts recording them for a podcast. In his eyes, this unruly Texan community — including Abilene’s eccentric music coach (Ashton Kutcher, smirking in a cowboy hat) — embody the essence of the American heartland, and Ben is eager to spin them into characters for his narrative.
Culling the podcast landscape has only recently become a trend in movies and TV. In “Only Murders in the Building,” we feel the thrill of playacting as amateur detectives, while Mike Mills’s “C’mon C’mon” offers a verité view of NPR-style radio production.
The shrewdness of Novak’s approach in “Vengeance” lies in how he lampoons podcast tropes while simultaneously borrowing from them. As Ben and Ty investigate Abilene’s death, Novak unspools a twisty thriller that would be right at home in a hit audio show. Threads emerge and then vanish, mysteries abound, and people are rarely as they seem.
As for podcasting authenticity, the Zoom recorder Ben carries around is a nice touch, but his radio editor (Issa Rae), working in an office back in New York City, is given little to do other than move Post-it notes around a whiteboard.
When Brian Reed of “Serial” journeyed to Alabama to trail a man named John in “S-Town,” the result was both absorbing and discomfiting. Novak is aware of this dichotomy, and within the safe confines of his fictional dark comedy he isn’t afraid to make us tingle with anticipation while turning a clear eye on the ways podcast hosts can grow parasitic — a self-serving outsider leeching stories from small-town hardship.
Put another way: The movie knows the boundary between art and reality can be porous. Ben Manalowitz isn’t an exact replica of Benjamin Joseph Manaly Novak, but maybe he is a version of who Novak could have been. Consequently, the parable “Vengeance” presents doesn’t wag its finger, but rather takes us on an artful journey through Novak’s conflicted feelings. If some find the movie — like Ben as a character — a little too self-satisfied, that could be the intention.
Yet it isn’t until the film’s surprising and superb ending that its value system is thrown into relief. It’s far too juicy to spoil, but I will say that the third act stages a battle of wills between Ben’s moral code and that of the Shaws, whom Ben has been caught guilty of underestimating. I’ll let you be the judge of which side wins once you watch this savvy crowd-pleaser for yourself.
Directed by B.J. Novak. Written by Novak. Starring Novak, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher. In theaters. 107 minutes. R (everything’s tarter in Texas). In English.