Thursday, July 28, 2022

Novak brings 'Vengeance' to big screen, but is it best served so cold?

B. J. Novak, the fictitious on-screen schmuck and real backstage honcho from NBC's ever-popular "The Office," delivers some fine moments with "Vengeance," which has the obviously versatile performer starring in and first-time writing/directing a movie feature.

The recent Tribeca Film Festival hit spotlights Novak as an alleged East Coast intellectual who has contributed to the esteemed New Yorker and yet never has heard of Abilene, Texas. 

We learn that tidbit early when Novak's Ben Manolowitz literally gets called upon by the grieving family of a dead, Lone Star State girl to attend her funeral. And guess what?

Her name is Abilene -- even if Ben knew her only as Abby and very briefly at that -- AND her resting place comes near the family home, which is situated "about a three-hour drive" from the city of Abilene itself. (Much later we also find out that the unnamed town is about 2 1/2 hours away from the closest Uber ride, by then just about ending a series of jabs poking fun at the size of Texas, among other occasionally humorous and politically aimed swipes.)

Honestly, "Vengeance" mostly scores as a murder mystery, since our obvious writer-fish out of water not only reluctantly shows up and is asked to speak at the funeral, but starts acting like a detective (disguised as a podcast producer) when Abby's colorful kin convince him that their sweet, All-American girl (Lio Tipton) might have been the unfortunate victim of very foul play.

Ashton Kutcher and Emmy-winning "Insecure" star Issa Rae are the biggest name contributors to a large, mostly and (I guess) purposely unlikable cast. Only Abby's mom (the grand J. Smith-Cameron from HBO's vaunted "Succession") and the clan's put-upon little brother (Eli Bickel) get to display any real warmth in a dish of "Vengeance" that's served up precisely for such cold, modern times.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and brief violence; 1:47; $ $ $ out of $5

Also opening Friday in theaters: the animated DC League of Super Pets and the documentary Fire of Love. Meanwhile, Ron Howard's "Thirteen Lives" is slated for extremely limited theatrical release before streaming Aug. 5 only on Prime Video.

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