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Movie review: 'Vengeance' inspires laughter, reflection

1/5
Ashton Kutcher (L) and B.J. Novak star in "Vengeance." Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Ashton Kutcher (L) and B.J. Novak star in "Vengeance." Photo courtesy of Focus Features

July 26 (UPI) -- Vengeance, in theaters Friday, is a biting satire of our social media, podcast-obsessed culture in which writer-director B.J. Novak applies his irreverent observations to a modern tale that still applies to real people with real heart.

Ben (Novak) is a New York City journalist with dreams of hosting a podcast. He also hooks up with different women every night.

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When Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) finds Ben's number in his sister's phone, he calls Ben with the tragic news that Abilene has died of a drug overdose. Ben attends the funeral in Texas out of guilt for not really remembering Abilene.

There are some fish-out-of-water, mistaken identity comedy of errors as Ben meets the family (J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron and Isabella Amara), but the plot kicks in when Ty suggests Abilene was murdered. Ben decides to record a podcast about the investigation and Ty's attempt to avenge his sister.

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Ben's whole premise is an overt satire of modern culture. Ben tells his editor, Eloise (Issa Rae), that he wants to pursue Americans' refusal to accept facts and create their own stories to make mundane facts more palatable.

Less explicitly stated, but equally poignant, are Novak's observations about social media culture.

Vengeance opens with Ben and his friend discussing their philosophy on relationships in what could be a sketch about noncommittal dudes that goes on long enough to reveal how they're trying to convince themselves of their own b.s.

Ben replies to most people by saying, "100%." It's not long into act one before the viewer realizes Ben isn't confident about anything, and his hyperbolic need to commit total assent betrays that.

The circumstances that lead the Shaw family to believe Ben was Abilene's boyfriend speak to the online interactions that substitute for real relationships. Ben is saved in Abilene's phone, they have documented interactions and he doesn't know anything about her.

The Shaws' interactions with Ben also depict the difference between real-life interactions and online personas. The Shaws don't understand insincerity, so they take Ben's "100%"s and other sarcastic comments literally.

Novak sets up a compelling mystery. Abilene's phone needs a password to unlock, and a link she sent him when they met no longer is online, so Ben must follow the clues.

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Ben actually gets close to the Shaws and learns to see the value in having permanent connections. Abilene becomes a real person, but that's also part of the commentary that he never bothered to get to know her when she was right in front of him.

Vengeance also is full of random nonsequiturs that keep the laughs coming. A Liam Neeson joke in particular has a tasteful laugh at the dichotomy between his action hero and more acclaimed work.

There are plenty of good old "city folk in the country" jokes. Novak captures all the awkwardness of cringe comedy, but still delivers laugh-out-loud punchlines.

Hopefully, the people most in need of the message of Vengeance will receive it. Novak is popular among millennial social media users and podcast listeners, so that message is coming from inside the house, as it were.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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