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DVD REVIEW: 'Vengeance' gives B.J. Novak a head start on great film career

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If you love “Only Murders in the Building,” you’ll embrace B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance.”

Just as clever, it mixes mystery and podcasts and comes away with a film that manages to comment on a number of levels. It’s a smart look at the country’s great divide and the media’s role in maintaining it.

Novak (who also wrote and directed) stars as Ben Manalowitz, a New York podcaster who heads to Texas when he gets a mysterious call in the middle of the night – his girlfriend has been murdered. Sadly, he doesn’t recall who she is (she was merely a hookup), but he agrees to go to her funeral in Texas. There, he meets her family, speaks at her funeral and decides further investigation could help him craft a podcast that addresses the differences between rural and urban, red and blue.

Staying in the dead woman’s room, he gets a sense of the environment that raised her and the desire to get out and start a music career.

He meets a local record producer, too, and tries to spin that restlessness into something bigger.

Ashton Kutcher stars as Quinten Sellers, the producer who wants the East Coaster to know they’re just as sophisticated in Texas.

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Still, stereotypes linger. Ben tries to fit in at a rodeo, doesn’t know Whataburger and can’t quite wrap his head around the traditions that are entrenched in the Shaw household. Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), the dead woman’s brother tries to open doors to people who can help him prove she didn’t just die of an overdose.

The signs don’t look good, but the atmosphere is wonderful. Ben sends recordings to his producer (Issa Rae) routinely and she’s just as smitten as he.

They get caught up in the minutiae and see themselves painting a picture of a world few have known.

Still, West Texas hasn’t been a favorite of filmmakers for nothing. Even viewers with a passing notion of the world know what’s pulling off here.

Novak makes a great story sponge. He’s eager for content but he never lets his subjects know what’s at play. Holbrook is good, too, as the good ol’ boy who’s willing to give the New Yorker just what he wants. While Dove Cameron gets some of the best lines (as one of the Shaws – they’re named for various locations), J. Smith-Cameron brings the heart, as her mother.

Podcast fans will be intrigued to see how those true-life mysteries are really crafted; others will realize this is often why East Coast media misreads the country.

“Vengeance” is a great debut film for Novak. It shows how smart writing can last much longer than any number of special effects.

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