August 24, 2022
B.J. Novak, best known for his role as Ryan Howard in The Office, makes his directorial debut with Vengeance, asatireabout America’s cultural divide and its disparate peoples’ perceptions of each other.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, an urban socialite from the brownstone-laden streets of Brooklyn, New York. He’s employed as a writer for the New Yorker — which, as Manalowitz will remind you throughout the film, is not to be confused for New York Magazine — and he derives his glaringly overinflated sense of importance from his Twitter verified badge.
Dissatisfied by the reach of his writing, Manalowitz pitches a popular podcaster (Issa Rae) a show about the “American story.” To which she retorts, “Not every white guy needs a podcast.”
Manalowitz is the archetypal New York liberal journalist. Infatuated with the sound of his own voice, he incessantly blathers about his theories explaining why Americans are divided but never bothers to learn anything about the people outside his immediate bubble.
In fact, for a writer who ostensibly wants to tell stories about Americans in Steinbeckian fashion, Manalowitz shows no interest in engaging in any meaningful human interaction at all. Manalowitz’s relationships exist as notifications on his iPhone. There’s Brunette Random House Party, Emily Vogue, and Texas Abby, just to name a few.
“Right now, I’m casually dating like six or seven different women,” a like-minded John Mayer tells him in an early cameo appearance. “But I do wonder deep down what it would be like to seriously date two or three.”
The film gets going when Manalowitz is suddenly awakened by a call from the bereaved family of one of his ephemeral relationships. They mistakenly think he is her boyfriend based on social media posts. Meanwhile, Manalowitz can’t even remember who she is. Far too cowardly to break the news that he was just a casual fling, he treks down to the middle of nowhere in rural Texas for the funeral.
Attempts at portraying stereotypes always run the risk of appearing snide and myopic. The rural family portrays all the Texan tropes you’d expect. They drive a pickup truck, own a heaping supply of firearms, and live in a house whose interior is festooned with crosses and other religious knickknacks. But Novak has clearly done his homework. As Vengeance’s writing shows, he’s not nearly as aloof as the character he plays.
Here, Manalowitz is a fish out of water like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. Except, instead of playing the unassuming Vinny, Novak embodies all of Frasier Crane’s arrogance and snobbery without any of the intellect. Pretending to know something about American history, he claims the Texans won the Battle of the Alamo. “Do they teach math where you’re from? One-hundred-eighty-six against 7,000. It was a massacre,” the Texan family responds.
Moreover, beyond its superficial cliches, the churchgoing red state family is tightly knit; they love and support each other, even denying that their daughter could have conceivably died from a drug overdose.
Initially impervious to the warmth and geniality of his Texan hosts and retaining his unyielding biases, Manalowitz decides to exploit the family for his podcast on some broader drivel he concocts as being the key to America’s cultural divides.
Despite ending with an incongruent (but entertaining) final act, Vengeance is a clever and tastefully balanced story about two Americas. It is the story its main character sought to capture but was ultimately hindered by his hubris. Manalowitz, symbolic of New York media, lacks the vulnerability to venture beyond his hermetic bubble. He never considers that the people he has kept at arm’s length as pawns in his intellectual game might have something to teach him about America.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner