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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Vengeance"

Vengeance, the first feature written and directed by B.J. Novak, begins with an intriguing premise. Ben is an insufferable New Yorker contributor who gets a call about a woman named Abby, with whom he’d had a quick fling. She was found dead in her hometown of an apparent drug overdose, her family is under the assumption that she and Ben were a couple, and they’re inviting him to her funeral in rural Texas.

Ben, of course, sees this miscommunication as an opportunity for himself: He can turn the experience into a podcast musing on the nature of death and emotional connection, with a few swipes taken at the American South along the way. But when the possibility is raised that Abby’s death may have been a murder, Ben takes on the role of amateur sleuth.

This is the sort of set-up that could sprawl out in any direction, and Novak, who also stars as Ben, follows them all. Vengeance is part fish-out-of-water comedy, part nihilistic neo-noir, part political satire, part twisty murder mystery. It wants to be Chinatown by way of My Cousin Vinny and a Portlandia sketch. There’s a subplot involving the town’s most notorious drug cartel, and another involving Ashton Kutcher as an indie record producer who has set up a studio in the middle of nowhere and thinks of himself as a modern-day philosopher.

The movie, which was actually shot in New Mexico, does have a nice eye for regional detail — from the fast food joints where seemingly everyone in the town hangs out, to the living room walls covered in those decorative signs adorned with affirmative messages in swirling fonts. It also has a terrific supporting cast: J. Smith-Cameron as Abby’s doting mother, Louanne Stephens as the cantankerous grandmother, Issa Rae as Ben’s editor. Boyd Holbrook, who mostly plays tough guys in action movies, is terrific as Abby’s loose cannon brother, who is convinced his sister’s death was foul play and wants to do something about it.

The only weak point in the cast is Novak himself — not so much because he’s a bad actor, but because the character he’s written for himself is such a letdown. I enjoyed Novak when he was part of the ensemble of The Office more than a decade ago, when he played a guy who thought he was above his coworkers but experienced a fall from grace that proved he was just as pathetic as everyone else.

In Vengeance, Novak seems unwilling to make his character the true butt of the joke. Yes, there are gags about how clueless Ben is to the salt-of-the-earth customs of blue-collar America, and yes, there’s the inevitable moment when the family discovers his ruse. But Ben winds up in the role of savior through a final plot mechanism that undermines its satire in an attempt to make a hollow point about… what, exactly? America in the 21st century? I’m not sure.

This is indicative of all of Vengeance, which wants to have a heaping helping of smug cake and eat it, too. It’s taking aim at a lot of things: self-indulgent journalism, the entitled men who center themselves in the stories of victimized women, true crime’s pathological obsession with deifying murdered white ladies. Yet Novak’s script is also indulging in all those things, and it’s enough to make you wonder if it was ever intended as satire in the first place.

Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.