promotional photo of "Vengeance" from Universal Pictures

There’s a lot to say about a film that has a lot to say about America.

B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance” is a dark comedy that is less about the titular vengeance and more about the stories people fabricate to justify their desire for vengeance. Although the film is uproariously hilarious, to constrain the premise of the story to just one genre is to do a great disservice to how many other aspects of American culture the film intelligently dissects. 

Set in the modern-day where Tinder hook-ups are as common as seeing pedestrians in a metropolis, “Vengeance” stars writer and director Novak as New York City writer and podcaster Ben Manalowitz. He’s contacted by the family of one of his previous hook-ups where he learns that Abilene, a name he can’t even recall, has passed away. He’s then guilt tripped into traveling to her hometown in Texas to attend the funeral of Abilene, where he meets her family and becomes enraptured in a conspiracy to uncover who murdered her.

That sets off the mystery aspect of the plot while the characterization of the Texans informs most of the comedic aspects. It’s a great culture clash in much the same way 2006’s “Borat” examined, though in this case the story highlights how disparate and polarized cultures in the United States are. It’s not enough to dissect the difference in sensibility between rural and urban; Novak successfully illuminates the distinction in worldview between the two. Where one values critical thinking and reasoning, the other values honor, loyalty, and trusting your instincts. 

Much of the narrative conflict revolves around Ben’s desire to make a story out of the family’s conspiratorial mindset and their insistence that subterfuge is at play. Along the way, Ben discovers that, while different, many of the values that the Shaw family exhibit are what’s missing from his own life. His appreciation grows and the film becomes less “fish out of water” comedy and more of a thoughtful examination of America itself. Where are we headed when we are so divided?

It’s refreshing to see a comedy about America that doesn’t rely upon insulting the differences between cultures. The mystery is engrossing and engaging because you aren’t sure if it’s fabricated or legitimate, and if it is legitimate then you find yourself down the same rabbit hole as Ben. Much of the humor works well because it’s relatable and even if you don’t find yourself laughing, the jokes keep the story moving at a respectable pace. “Vengeance” is an underrated sleeper success that will keep you thinking long after the credits have rolled.

— “Vengeance” is rated R and is showing at Marquee Cinemas, Galleria 14, in Beckley.

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