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Dan Webster reviews " Vengeance"

A quick Internet search will show up dozens of movies that involve revenge. And let’s be honest: Such a basic human emotion can make for some fairly scintillating cinema.

Examples include everything from Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill 1 & 2,” Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick” series to Michael Winner’s original “Death Wish” (plus the lesser sequels).

All follow a common plotline: Somebody does something bad to a character we are introduced to, and our protagonist spends much if not all of the movie trying to get some kind of payback. You’d think a movie titled “Vengeance” would follow in similar fashion. And while on the surface it does, first-time feature filmmaker B.J. Novak has something a bit more topical in mind.

Novak’s name might not ring any bells for you. But if you’re a fan of the American version of the television show “The Office,” you may know him (he played the character of Ryan Howard). Then, too, he appeared in the Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks” (he played the songwriter Robert Sherman).

In “Vengeance,:” Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a writer for the New Yorker who has dreams of becoming the voice of his generation … or something like that. Seems he wants to be a podcaster, as if anyone with access to the Internet can’t be one, too.

His ploy, though, is to approach the podcast producer Eloise (played by Issa Raye), who can both greenlight and then sponsor whatever project he might come up with – which, actually, is his problem. Ben’s ideas are vague and, quite simply, mostly concern him and his limited worldview. As we learn early on, his shallow lifestyle involves hooking up with women, attending parties and standing around with a buddy commenting blandly about everything and repeating ad nauseum the phrase “hundred percent.”

Then one morning he is awakened by his ringing phone. And the person on the other end identifies himself as Ty Shaw (played by Boyd Holbrook), the brother of Abilene – the woman Ty claims is Ben’s one true love. Which confounds Ben because he can’t think of just who this woman is.

Even when he does recall sleeping with Abilene once or twice, and is about to explain the situation, Ty tells him that Abilene has died. Which is when Ben suddenly detects that he might have found fodder for a winning podcast. Just that fast he drives his Prius to Texas to check things out and becomes convinced of it. Because that’s when Ty insists that Abilene was murdered.

What follows is, in some respects, your standard mystery story. Starting with Abilene’s family, Ben investigates, tape recorder in hand. Besides brother Ty, the Shaw family consists of a couple of sisters, a younger brother referred to as El Stupido and a mother and grandmother (played respectively by J. Smith-Cameron and Louanne Stephens).

But whether he’s talking to the Shaws, to a couple of dim-witted city cops, the area’s Mexican drug connection or a local recording producer (played by s surprisingly effective Ashton Kutcher), Ben finds that his first impressions aren’t necessarily correct. Yes, when he asks one of the Shaw sisters how she “takes her coffee,” she looks at him as if he were stupid and says, matter of factly, “In the mouth.”

But when he attempts to explain to the announcer at a rodeo that he’s a writer and not a rider – of horse or cows or whatever – he’s called out for being a condescending … well, a profane noun that we can’t repeat on the radio.

In fact, what makes “Vengeance” special is the interplay between Ben’s effete Eastern attitudes and the not-as-stupid-as-they-first-seem people he encounters. Novak not only lampoons the split plaguing America but he shows cleverly just how both sides of that split tend to overestimate their own moral superiority while underestimating the intelligence of the other.

That’s the good news. The bad news comes when Novak tries to resolve the issue implicit in his film’s title. While Novak is perfectly fine as Ryan Howard, he’s no match for Charles Bronson.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for