Vengeance – A Film By B.J. Novak
I am always amazed by people who say they have no regrets in life. I am blown away by their confidence and self-assurance. Last night I finally had a film echo my constant inner monologue when J. Smith-Cameron (the brilliant Gerri from Succession) said these powerful lines towards the end:
“In my life, everything starts with a regret, ends with a regret. In between, regrets. It’s all regrets. You run as fast as you can from the last regret and of course you are just running straight into the next one. That’s life. It’s all regrets. That’s what they should say. No other way to be alive. It’s all regrets. Make ’em count.”
If you are looking for a genre, the film I watched is a dark comedic thriller and while the laughs keep coming it’s the dialogue that hits you hard. B.J. Novak, who you probably know as Ryan from The Office, made his debut as a writer/director with Vengeance last year. I finally found time to watch the movie last night and let me tell you right away, it is full of surprises.
Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is a writer from NYC who flies to Texas, the real Texas, not Dallas, Austin or Houston, to attend the funeral of Abby (Lio Tipton), a girl he had casually hooked up with but whose family thinks that he is the boyfriend. Ben writes for The New Yorker as he clarifies a couple of times and he wants to tell a story, the story of America, and that is why he takes the trouble of going all the way to Texas. It’s that simple. The characters you meet throughout the film, are however, not as simple. They are lovingly layered. J. Smith-Cameron who I mentioned earlier plays Abby’s mother Sharon Shaw and Boyd Holbrook makes an impression as Ty Shaw, her brother, who is pretty sure that Abby was murdered. The icing on the cake is Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers, a lanky, suave, smooth-talking, cowboy hat rocking music producer. I have saved the best for the last – Eli Bickel. He plays Abby’s nine year old brother Mason Shaw (also known as El Stupido) with whom Ben has this late night chat about ghosts.
El Stupido Shaw : I’m scared.
Ben Manalowitz : What are you scared of?
El Stupido Shaw : Ghosts.
Ben Manalowitz : Ghosts aren’t real.
El Stupido Shaw : If they’re not real, how come everyone knows what they are?
Ben Manalowitz : They’re real as an idea, but they’re not real, real. That’s what’s scary about ghosts, that they aren’t real. If ghosts were real they wouldn’t be scary at all, right? We would just smile and say, “Hi, ghosts!”
El Stupido Shaw : Hi ghosts!
Ben Manalowitz : Hi ghost! Wouldn’t that be cool? If when someone wasn’t there anymore there was still a little piece of them that could surprise you sometimes?
El Stupido Shaw : Yeah.
Ben Manalowitz : But there’s not, there’s nothing. And that’s what’s scary about ghosts. That the little piece of someone that feels like it might still be there isn’t there at all. Do you feel better?
El Stupido Shaw : No.
Ben Manalowitz : Me neither.
I don’t feel better either but I feel understood. Exchanges like these make the movie stand out. Novak has a lot going on in his head and he has somehow managed to cram all of it into this movie and I, for one, don’t mind at all.
If you like fish-out-of-water stories (Ben does cheer for the wrong team at the rodeo), you will like this movie more so because there’s less of judgement and more of finding common ground. There’s humor all through the movie and it goes beyond the usual tropes of making fun of one group of people, be it the city slicker or the tough Texan. The characters are given depth and a viewpoint which may not be yours exactly but because it is written and acted with a whole lot of heart, you eventually get it.
I rarely do movie reviews but when I do it’s when the movie really speaks to me. Vengeance went a step further as it validated how I feel about having regrets. It’s okay to have regrets, even the tiny nagging ones as long as you are happy with the bigger picture and you make all the regrets count.