In 'Vengeance,' a podcast bro messes with Texas : Pop Culture Happy Hour B.J. Novak (The Office) wrote, directed, and stars in the new indie comedy Vengeance. He plays Ben, a New York City journalist who decides to turn the mysterious death of his former hookup into fodder for a podcast. The film features Issa Rae as his podcast editor and Ashton Kutcher as a record producer.

In 'Vengeance,' a podcast bro messes with Texas

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

B.J. Novak is probably best known for his work on "The Office." Now he's written, directed and stars in the new indie comedy "Vengeance." He plays Ben, a New York City journalist who decides to turn the mysterious death of his former hookup into fodder for a podcast.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

In her small Texas hometown, he teams up with her family to investigate her death. Cultures clash, of course, and bonds are formed. Lessons are learned. The movie also stars Issa Rae and Ashton Kutcher. I'm Glen Weldon.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "Vengeance" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining us today is the host of NPR's Book Of The Day podcast and a reporter for the culture desk, Andrew Limbong. Welcome back, Andrew.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey. What's up, y'all?

HARRIS: Hey. And also with us is NPR contributor Cyrena Touros. Hi, Cyrena. Welcome back.

CYRENA TOUROS, BYLINE: Hey, Aisha. Hey, Glen.

HARRIS: So in "Vengeance," B.J. Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a journalist who's looking to break into podcasting.

WELDON: Oh. Oh.

TOUROS: Aren't we all?

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So one day he receives this unexpected phone call. A woman he used to hook up with named Abilene led her family to believe that he was her serious boyfriend, and now she's dead. Ben's invited to the funeral in a small, very rural Texas town. Boyd Holbrook plays her brother, Ty. He tells Ben that he doesn't believe she died of an opioid overdose as the police claimed and enlists Ben to help him find her murderer. Ben sees this as the perfect opportunity to create a hit true crime podcast. So he pitches the idea to his friend and podcast producer Eloise, who's played by Issa Rae. "Vengeance" also features Ashton Kutcher as a record producer, J. Smith-Cameron as Abilene's mother and, for reasons we may never fully understand, John Mayer as a version of himself. The movie is now in theaters. Andrew, let's start with you. Tell us how you feel about "Vengeance."

LIMBONG: OK. So, like, at first I was apprehensive about it. I was like, oh, fish out of water. And some, like Brooklyn lib is going to, like, discover Texas people are real or whatever. But then I think it was surprisingly good. I enjoyed quite a bit of it. I think at first the jokes sort of at the, quote-unquote, like, "expense" of the Texas characters were a bit too broad. But I think it sort of settles in nicely where then they become kind of earned. On the flipside, I think he absolutely nailed a certain type of media dude that, like, you know, we all know and love maybe, you know...

WELDON: We all know.

LIMBONG: ...With a very certain knowing specificity that I guess I got to give him props for.

HARRIS: Love is a strong, strong word, but...

TOUROS: Not the right verb.

HARRIS: Know and have encountered is maybe the better word.

LIMBONG: Yeah, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But yes, yes - interesting, nice to hear that you were into it. I think the rest of us have some different feelings. But, Glen, let us know. How do you feel?

WELDON: Well, I mean, I enjoyed a lot of this film, a lot of the exchanges, a lot of the jokes. I like the work it does to set up his character as a complete douchebag with the understanding that this is work he did on "The Office," too, right? He was in the writers' room, and his character Ryan gradually emerged as this kind of tech bro in training to having us perceive his character as a douchebag. By casting John Mayer as your best friend, that's going to do a lot of the work.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

WELDON: All of that is very knowing and self-aware. When you cast the great Issa Rae as his boss and you have her react politely to his initial pitch - but also, we can see that she kind of has this guy's number at the same time. We can see in her eyes that she sees him for what he is. Now, the film does keep going back to the same joke again and again. You start to see it, you know, in this one scene where he is sitting around Abilene's family's dinner table and he has this one exchange with the grandmother. And the grandmother, by the way, is played by Louanne Stephens, who's great. And she was Grandma Saracen on "Friday Night Lights."

HARRIS: Yes, yes.

WELDON: It's great to see her again. And this exchange is, like - he's trying to mansplain South by Southwest to her, and she, of course, knows it. So this is the joke. This is the joke again and again - that he gets cut off at the knees by being condescending. And I could watch that for hours. I kind of feel like I did. I'm still struggling with this - right? - because I agree with Andrew. The self-awareness is my favorite thing about the film. I also think it's the thing that's keeping it from landing. There's always something really defensive and self-consciously meta about it, something very calculated and wary. I'm always aware that B.J. Novak knows how his character is coming off. He's not afraid to look like a jerk.

And I think the film might work better if the filmmaker was a bit more afraid to look like a jerk, if the filmmaker put himself out there and didn't constantly wink at us and, like, say, boy, this character is a jerk, right? There'll be tender moments between him and the younger brother in the film. I know it's just there to kind of show us a softer side to him. I know it's doing work. It's a very smart film. And it's so eager to sell us his douchebag-grows-as-a-person premise. I just - in the end, I didn't buy it.

HARRIS: Yeah. I'm glad you mentioned that sort of winking because I think that the whole dinner table scene with the grandmother and the family I think was, to me, the strongest and really, like you said, sets forth the thesis of this movie. But it's a difficult line to walk because it's like, OK, how far do you take it? Like, at what point do you cross over into just, like, yes, I know, I know, I know, and it becomes too much? It's like, you got to give us a little bit more tension here. And the joke keeps coming back. And sometimes I chuckled a few times even after I knew it was coming. But still, it's a little grating. I can see that. Cyrena, tell us your thoughts.

TOUROS: Yeah, I think the wink is a risk. And I don't know that the risk paid off. I came to this kind of the opposite way of Andrew where I watched the trailer and I was really excited by the premise where, you know - I'm not a dead white girl podcast kind of person except when the way the story is told is subverting the expectations of true crime. So it seemed like it was going to be a movie considering the people outside of the city bubbles with respect, kind of like the true crime version of a Hallmark movie where, like, big city jerk flies out to small town, gets taught the meaning of family, community, love, etc., etc. So whoever made the trailer deserves a raise because that's not really the movie that we got in the end.

I feel like they're not really characters to me so much as just, like, formless, half-baked ideas encased in this, like, fleshy disguise. You know, the Ashton Kutcher character in particular - I just completely zoned out every time he was talking. I mean, it was like being back at a basement party in college and having some random white dude mansplain the music industry to me because I said I was interning at NPR Music. And he said, well, I have a New Yorker subscription, and therefore, I have a lot to say about the state of the world. And in that sense, like, the best parts of the movie are - I agree with you all - where Ben is, like, being this media douchebag, where he's, like, trying to make every interaction into, like, a capital-I idea for a story and is kind of just blowing a lot of hot air. But I do feel like people want somebody to be able to explain to them why things happen and why the world is the way it is. And at times it felt like we were going to get that movie with that animating message that ties together ideas about, like, grief and dashed dreams and complicated loyalties to imperfect places. And instead, we got "Vengeance," which is a movie preoccupied with profundity that doesn't really have anything to say about that itself.

HARRIS: Well, I mean, the ironic thing about it is that there's, like, several conversations between the B.J. Novak character and the Issa Rae character where he's talking about, like, what this will all be about and how he wants to make a podcast about America, but really, it's about how we're all too distracted and we're too - whatever. It's just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and you can understand what he's trying to get at in - especially when we live in this era now where, I don't know, 10, 15 years ago, all the indie movies were making fun of, like, hipsters, and now we've moved into the area where we're making fun of podcasting and true crime and media and that sort of thing. And I couldn't help but think of "Only Murders In The Building," because that is doing some similar things, but that's a series. And when you've got Steve Martin and you've got Martin Short and Selena Gomez, kind of this trifecta, and it's over the course of several episodes, you get all of those same beats that this movie's hitting but over a longer period of time, and the jokes grow and form and change in a way that, like, it's hard to do in a 90-ish-minute movie. And I think that this just kind of fell flat for me. I imagine Issa Rae getting the script for this and seeing that, like, 90% of it is her just making faces and responding.

LIMBONG: On the phone, she was like, yo, I don't got to go nowhere? I could just do this?

HARRIS: It's like, half of it is her just, like, listening to the tape that the B.J. Novak character has sent to her, and just making faces and, like, putting up Post-it notes and all these other things, and I'm just like, ugh. I needed more for her. I wanted more for her, but maybe this was an easy enough gig, and, like, it was more of a favor. Who knows? So without spoiling too much the whole murder thing, what did you make of how this movie tackles that aspect of things because it ends very darkly, I think, in a way that does not flow with the rest of what the film is trying to say? And it felt like, oh, I want to shock people. I want to make this really, really dark, man. And I don't think it really worked for me, but I'm curious what you think.

LIMBONG: Yeah, the whodunit part of the movie - it's, like, so easy to figure out that it kind of doesn't matter because I guess it goes into these questions of like, who done it and why and all of that stuff. But the thrust of the movie - like, going to that ending scene, I was like, yeah, OK. That makes sense why we're here. I got it. We were always supposed to end up here. But then, like, yeah, like you said, how it actually ends - yeah, I don't know if it fit, but I'm glad it happened, if that makes sense.

TOUROS: You know, the movie didn't seem to care about the murder mystery, and therefore, I didn't really care about the murder mystery. That's where I landed on it.

WELDON: Yeah. You just keep remembering at the end that the film is called "Vengeance," and there hasn't really been much about vengeance or anything throughout the entire film, and then all of a sudden, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It's called "Vengeance." I get it now. The thing that this has that "Only Murders In The Building" doesn't is this whole rural versus urban divide, this whole class element. And at some point, there'll be a character who'll say, you know, the people down here are like this, not because they're stupid. And you're like, I didn't bring that into the conversation. You did, dude. That is - that defensiveness is coming from a Hollywood screenwriter. It's not coming from these people, so you're going out of your way to say it's not because they're dumb. And this film also - as you mentioned, Cyrena, you nailed it - it contains all these monologues about the nature of modern life and takes, and they bring everything to a halt. We get a couple of them at the climax right on top of each other.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: And that's what pushes the whole whodunit of it aside.

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: That is how these dudes talk. You know what I mean? It may not be very, like, entertaining or appealing, but it is, I think, true to both the B.J. Novak character. The interesting thing about the Ashton Kutcher character is that, like, the snake oil he sells, he sells it so well that I can almost buy it, you know? When he's pontificating about, like, "The Voice" - right? - when he's, like, doing his, like, music stuff, I was like, is this actually smart? Am I trapped? Did he get me? You know?

WELDON: Right. Well, that's exactly the thing that the B.J. Novak character goes through at the same time, right? He wants us to have exactly that same reaction. So I think you can be forgiven for having that reaction, 'cause I kind of did, too.

TOUROS: But I think what removed me from believing it was that, like, you put two of those guys in the same room, and they're going to talk over each other. They're not going to listen all that well. They're just waiting for the next opportunity for them to jump into the conversation.

HARRIS: Yeah.

TOUROS: So I think, like, you know, the observant silence from either of them, it just - that's not how guys talk to each other.

HARRIS: Not those guys, anyway.

TOUROS: No.

HARRIS: I feel like the movie kind of did care about the whodunit, insomuch as that part of the whodunit is that the family is convinced that she didn't die of an overdose, and it's also layering on this, like, very timely theme around opioid use and what that meant for her as a person, even though we never really meet her as a person. We just know about her. And I guess that was another issue I had with the film, is that, like, we just know about her through what everyone tells us. But I do think it's trying to say some extra things about that sort of political stance, and I'm not sure for me that really worked. Maybe I'm the only one who was stuck on the whodunit, and not that I cared, but I was just like, OK, so did she die of an overdose, or did someone actually kill her? And, like, what is it trying to say either way, if that happens?

So last thing before we move on - I'm curious what you all think about this as B.J. Novak's directorial debut. You know, he's directed some TV in the past, but this is his first feature. He's also written and stars in this. So what do you make of him as a director, and does this make you excited to see more from him later on?

TOUROS: No. I mean, I was excited to see this project 'cause he's been, like, cooking it up for several years, it looks like. But, I mean, from a directorial standpoint, this movie was very visually uninteresting to me. There are many moments where I was just kind of like, I'm not compelled by the characters or the plot or the conversation, and it's not even fun to look at. It's just kind of happening.

HARRIS: But Cyrena, there's that moment, and Ben is like, oh, my God, it's beautiful - the skies, the Texas sky.

TOUROS: That was a tell, not show.

LIMBONG: I don't know if I have a higher tolerance for guys pontificating, you know, about, like, nonsense. You know, it actually - now that I think about it, you know, Aisha, you were mentioning, like, "Only Murders In The Building" and stuff like that. It kind of reminds me of the first season of "American Vandal" - asking all these bigger questions about, like, who's responsible for, like, telling these stories? And, like, what does, like, you know, all of that actually do in service of people and all that? Granted, it doesn't hit those highs. I'm biased. I think "AV" Season 1 is probably one of the best things ever made. But, like, I like that he's digging into that, like, stew and not really coming up with any clear answers.

WELDON: This has very first-time director vibes all over it. And I'm - so I can roll with it, right? I also think I haven't seen him play as an actor a character too far afield from this guy. So maybe if he can get out of his own way and not be an actor, just be a writer-director, then he could tell a story that isn't about us second guessing his on-screen and off-screen persona. I think a second directorial effort is going to be more interesting than this.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, we want to know what you think about "Vengeance." So find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, we'll be talking about what's making us happy this week.

And now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What's Making Us Happy? Andrew, let us know.

LIMBONG: All right. So what's making me happy this week is a new EP from a band called End It. It's called "Unpleasant Living." They're a Baltimore hardcore band, and it's a very hardcore EP. There's, like, six tracks, and I think the whole thing's, like, 8 minutes long. And you know, it's like that kind of vibes. Like, this is just straight up, like, beat downs and gang vocals and stuff like that that feels very, like, classic but done so well that it's still kind of refreshing. There's one song on it called "Hatekeeper".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATEKEEPER")

END IT: (Rapping) Who are you to point the blame, want to change the rules but never played the game. I said who are you...

LIMBONG: From what I can glean from the sort of, like, hardcore vocals that I can only half make out, it's like a pro-gatekeeper song in the hardcore scene being like, you know what? There's a lot of, like, weird Nazi posers in here. We got to just, like, make a stand and say, like, some people not allowed. And I don't know. I think that's a very, like, defiant stance to take where in the hardcore scene it's been like, oh, we're all open (vocalizing). So yeah.

HARRIS: So that's End It. And what's the name of the new EP again?

LIMBONG: "Unpleasant Living."

HARRIS: Awesome. Thank you, Andrew. Cyrena, let us know what is making you happy.

TOUROS: J-Hope from BTS is playing Lollapalooza this weekend, and I will not be there. So that's what's making me unhappy. But it is making me happy that he just released his first solo album two weeks ago called "Jack In The Box." He's got a really interesting ear as a producer. He likes to play with textures and, like, updating '90s hip-hop sounds with modern beats. He's just really sharp and smart and interesting and interested in, like, narrative and visual storytelling. This album in particular is about the myth of Pandora's Box and kind of plays on the fact that his stage name is J-Hope. You know, hope is the last thing left in the box. And so hopefully there's a livestream this weekend of Lollapalooza, and I will be watching J-Hope make his debut. He's the first Korean artist to headline a major American music festival. My favorite song on his new album is called "Arson."

(SOUNDBITE OF J-HOPE SONG, "ARSON")

HARRIS: Awesome. So that's J-Hope. I hope for you, you get to watch him on Lollapalooza, streaming. Glen, what's making you happy?

WELDON: The video game Stray kind of blew up my timeline over the weekend, so I checked it out. In this game, you are a kitty. And you are trying to get back to your family. And you're in this underground city peopled only by robots. And there's all kinds of clues where you can figure out what the city is about, what happened to the humans, blah, blah, blah. But maybe save that for your second or third playthrough, and there will be those because the game is really about being a kitty - climbing up on stuff, sneaking past security cameras, rubbing up on some random robot's leg, knocking cans of paint off of shelves, sometimes to get to the next level, sometimes just to be a jerk. It is completely on rails in terms of where you go and how you get there. And look; I'm a dog person, but if you're a cat person, I suspect you're going to get a whole nother level of satisfaction from this game. That is Stray, available for PlayStation and Windows.

HARRIS: Thank you, Glen. I am definitely a dog person, but that actually sounds fun.

WELDON: It's fun.

HARRIS: So for me, I was on the internet the other day and saw that this past weekend at the Newport Folk Festival, Joni Mitchell arrived on stage. She performed her first full-length concert since 2000, and she's brought up by Brandi Carlile. And I saw her performance of "Both Sides Now." And man, oh, man, watch this and try not to weep at the end of it. First of all, you know, Joni Mitchell looks great. She suffered a brain aneurysm a few years ago, and she's been recovering ever since. And here she was on stage. She had, like, a little beret on. She was sitting down. And she just looked happy. And the way she sings this song, you know, she - the phrasing is all there. She - her voice is deeper, it's richer. And it's just really, really beautiful to see. Let's actually just hear a little clip of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH SIDES NOW")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) I look at clouds that way, but now they only block the sun. And they rain and they snow on everyone.

HARRIS: Yeah. Joni Mitchell having that chance to be onstage, you could see the people who were on stage with her, they were all emotional about it. Brandi Carlile looked like she was about to cry. It was just a moment, and I love it. It's making me happy. I'm happy she still gets to have those moments.

And that's what's making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, you should definitely sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you, Glen Weldon, Andrew Limbong, Cyrena Touros for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

TOUROS: Thank you guys.

HARRIS: This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Audio engineering was performed by Patrick Murray, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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