When entrusted to play basically nondescript, slightly smug “regular” guys in movies such as Inglourious Basterds, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder, B.J. Novak has been mostly unbearable – his blasé detachment reads as boredom, and he doesn't seem to have the acting resources necessary to make fundamentally dull characters interesting. Yet when Novak is the butt of a joke, as he frequently was during his long tenure on The Office, he can be an utter delight. You loved watching that smarmy, entitled little d-bag Ryan Howard getting handcuffed by the cops, to say nothing of Michael Scott revealing that the eternal temp's new workspace was a windowless supply closet.
In his first outing as a feature-film writer/director/star, Novak does a lot of very smart things in Vengeance; while I've enjoyed a bunch of movies this summer, none of them has been the low-key, completely unanticipated surprise that this comedic thriller proves to be. Yet the man's wisest inspiration was to make his Manhattan-ite Ben Manalowitz – a wannabe podcaster attempting to solve a shaggy-dog mystery in West Texas – every bit as self-involved and condescending as Novak himself has appeared to be nearly every time we've seen him on screens big and small. From his first minutes here, despite his gifts for sardonic repartee, you kind of detest Ben. That knee-jerk response, though, is instrumental in understanding why Vengeance works as well as it does. In the end, it's a movie about the folly of snap judgments based on little beyond cultural or character stereotypes – an exploration of presumed heartlessness that winds up displaying a heart as big as, well … . You know.
The event that sends Novak's plot into motion is a late-night phone call, which Ben receives from a sobbing Texan named Ty (Boyd Holbrook). Ty's sister Abilene has just been found dead after an opioid overdose, and as Ben was the love of her life, Ty knows that her beau will want to trek to the family's small town in West Texas for her funeral. Trouble is, Ben doesn't remember her: Abilene was just one of his many, many hookups during her failed attempt to make it as a singer in New York. But Ty's grief, in an admittedly unlikely turn, wears Ben down, and before long he's in the Lone Star state surrounded by Abilene's loved ones, goaded by Ty into tracking down his sister's “killer,” because no way was her death an accident. After his initial misgivings subside, Ben agrees to help. He smells a long-form hit, even though his smart, savvy producer (the excellent Issa Rae) astutely reminds him that “not every white guy in America needs to have a podcast.”
This material could have gone wrong in so many different ways that it's frankly astounding that it barely goes wrong in any of them. We're guided into expecting primo Blue State v. Red State comedy, as well as some timeless Fish Out of Water comedy, from the moment Ty picks Ben up at the airport and, on the subsequent car ride, tells the New Yorker that he reminds Ty of a character from his least-favorite Liam Neeson movie: Schindler's List. Yet while Novak's film has a lot of fun – and we do, too – with the divide that finds Abilene's family constitutionally unable to define the precise magic of the fast-food chain Whataburger (“It's always there!”), more often than not it's the gently snooty aesthete Ben who's the subject of friendly mockery. In his attempts to sound hip to the astute Texans who could care less about such things, Ben gets routinely, hilariously schooled on the theory of Chekhov's gun and his reasons for visiting “South by,” and the rodeo scene in which Ben emerges as a horse's ass by cheering the wrong team is a masterful bit of B.J. Novak comeuppance courtesy of Novak himself.
The twists of expectation, however, don't stop after Ben gets truly serious about his impending podcast – one given the initially crude-yet-grabby title Dead White Girl – and the truth behind Abilene's death becomes tougher to ascertain. Ben has an encounter with a seemingly affable record-producer hayseed (Ashton Kutcher) who proves to be intensely sharp in his analysis and Harvard-educated, to boot. He meets with a reportedly vicious drug runner (Zach Villa) who reveals a deeply buried sensitive side. He receives kindly acceptance from Abilene's mom (Succession's marvelous J-Smith Cameron) whose phraseology is bristling with hidden fire. No one is completely who they seem in Vengeance, and that goes for Ben, too. Our first view of him is at a chic rooftop party in Manhattan, trading self-pitying witticisms with John Mayer (!) and complaining about how white men of their clichéd type are tragically misunderstood. By the film's mid-point, it turns out that Ben actually has a soul … which means that B.J. Novak has a soul. I gotta admit: Didn't see that coming.
Much of Vengeance is devoted to highfalutin' – or perhaps merely falutin' while high – discussion of the specific nature of Red/Blue disassociation, as well as our dissimilar views on the Second Amendment, law-enforcement terrain, culpability in opioid addiction, and whether Frito Pie, which is essentially a bag of Fritos with chili and nacho cheese poured atop, should serve as a serviceable dinner. (My view after seeing the movie: Hell yeah.) But the majority of these detours are fantastically effective – Kutcher, whom I didn't realize I missed as much as I apparently do, beautifully delivers a couple of Novak's best-written monologues – and the movie also offers honest suspense (and a shocking car explosion), huge laughs, legitimate local flavor, a truly unforeseen narrative climax, and the best screen role that the ridiculously charismatic Boyd Holbrook has yet had. In the end, I loved Vengeance, and loved it all the more for not being remotely prepared for it. I get why, on its opening weekend, the film made roughly one-fifteenth of what DC League of Super-Pets did. As a juicy, largely unheralded gem that audiences will gradually discover over the years, I'm hoping it'll endure 15 times longer.
DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS
And what, you may wonder, of DC League of Super-Pets itself – the animated action comedy that gives Superman a devoted pooch voiced by Dwayne Johnson and a nefarious super-villain in the hairless Guinea pig voiced by Kate McKinnon? It's fine. My eight-year-old friend who graciously accompanied me to the screening thought it was fine, too, though she didn't chuckle nearly as much as I did (which, admittedly, wasn't a lot). Maybe it was just fatigue. Over two-week intervals this summer, I had already recruited her for Lightyear, then the latest Minions, then Paws of Fury, and now this. How many wacky, cartoon-y adventures can someone not yet in third grade stand before she'd rather curl up with a good book instead? How many can a professional critic who's 46 years her senior?
Because these sorts of high-concept, low-risk animated entertainments have only become endurable, and occasionally fun, because of the delight they've brought my young chaperone, I don't have a heckuva lot to say about writer/director Jared Stern's Super-Pets, given that she seemed to tolerate the movie more than truly enjoy it. And attempting a plot synopsis would be like setting a monkey loose on a computer keypad; there may be random words that make sense, but they won't necessarily mean anything. Suffice it to say that if you and your kids are bored, and none of you are feeling adventurous enough for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (an occasionally downbeat movie that, I have to admit, my eight-year-old buddy did not seem to like), you could certainly do worse.
Voicing a gruff-on-the-outside shelter dog, Kevin Hart sounds atypically disengaged; this might be the first time in recorded history that the comedian appears to be the least-excitable member of a cast. But Johnson is occasionally amusing, as are the characters voiced by McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Diego Luna, John Krasinksi (he's Superman), Marc Maron, and the comedy team of Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. Keanu Reeves is a hoot as Batman, never better than when a perfect pregnant pause leads to Bruce Wayne's unasked-for sharing: “I miss my parents.” And I have no idea who came up with the idea to cast Natasha Lyonne as the turtle who's granted miraculous super-speed. But whomever did deserves either a raise or a statue in their honor, given the decidedly grown-up joy Lyonne delivers after her Merton McSnurdle takes off at light speed, winds up in an unfamiliar patch of territory, and asks, with the performer's gravelly Jewish-mama cadences, “Where the #*&@! am I?” Needless to say, in DC League of Super-Pets, that expletive is bleeped out. But I have to say, it's been ages since a line in a PG-rated kiddie comedy made me laugh so #*&@!-ing hard.