The Pitch: Ben (B.J. Novak) is a guy who doesn’t necessarily have something to say, but he wants to be the type of guy who says stuff worth hearing. That’s why, despite being a working writer in New York, with publication credits including The New Yorker, what he really wants is to make a podcast. “Not every white guy needs a podcast,” producer Eloise (Issa Rae) tells him when he tries to hard-sell her on his ideas at a party, but things change when a former hookup of Ben’s ends up leading him to podcasting gold.
Awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from a stranger, Ben finds out that a girl named Abilene Shaw, who he’d slept with a few times and texted casually, has died, and her family back home in small-town Texas thinks he was the love of Abby’s life. So, after a guilt trip from Abby’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook), Ben treks down to attend the funeral and meet Abby’s family, hoping not to reveal to them how little he actually knew the deceased, who was said to have died from a drug overdose, even though — it’s repeatedly said — she wouldn’t even take an aspirin.
However, after the funeral, Ty starts talking about figuring out who’s responsible for Abby’s untimely end, and Ben realizes that he’s just landed smack-dab in the middle of podcasting gold. Calling Eloise from the side of a Texas highway, he successfully pitches her a podcast investigation into Abby’s death that would also serve as a greater metaphor for These Times We Live In, and she’s sold as soon as she hears the three magic words of podcasting: “dead white girl.” But of course, as Ben investigates the circumstances of Abby’s death, he might be putting himself in similar danger…
“New Yawk Cit-ay?”: Okay, that last line maybe implies that Vengeance is much more of a thriller than it ends up being. While the film opens with a mysterious nighttime sequence that feels like it could either be the past or it could be a flash-forward to someone’s untimely end, the black comedy, which Novak also wrote and directed, proves to be much more focused on ideas than actual suspense.
Fortunately enough, the ideas tend to be pretty interesting, even when Novak can’t resist the temptation to indulge in certain tropes: As Ben begins his investigation, for example, he takes up residence in the Shaw family home, sleeping in Addy’s room and getting not just podcasting equipment but fancy coffee supplies delivered from New York.
The immediate and instant “red state vs. blue state” dichotomy set up continues as Ben struggles to understand the Shaw family obsession with Whataburger (“it’s always there!”) and flounders over questions about which college football team is acceptable to root for. Fortunately, as the story continues — Ben interviewing the locals, getting to know the town as well as the Shaw family — the lines between big city snob and country bumpkin blur, and the characters all gain a bit more depth.