When entrusted to play basically nondescript, slightly smug “normal” guys in films such as Inglourious Basterds, saving Mr. Banks, and The founder, BJ Novak was mostly unbearable — his jaded distance reads like boredom, and he doesn’t seem to have the acting resources necessary to make fundamentally boring characters interesting. But with Novak it’s a prankster, as he often was during his long tenure The office, he can be an absolute delight. You loved watching that sleazy, dubbed little D-Bag Ryan Howard get handcuffed by the cops, not to mention Michael Scott revealing that the perpetual temp’s new workplace was a windowless pantry.
In his debut as a feature writer/director/star, Novak does a lot of very smart things Revenge; While I’ve enjoyed a number of films this summer, none of them have been low-key, totally unexpected surprise as this comedic thriller turns out to be. The man’s smartest inspiration, however, was to make his Manhattan-It Ben Manalowitz — a wannabe podcaster trying to solve a shaggy mystery in West Texas — just as self-absorbed and condescending as Novak himself has acted almost every time we do have seen him on big and small screens. From his first minutes here, Ben is despised, despite his gift for smug repartee. This knee-jerk reaction, however, contributes significantly to understanding the reason Revenge works as good as it gets. In the end it’s a movie around the stupidity of hasty judgments based on little more than cultural or character stereotypes – an exploration of perceived heartlessness that ends up revealing a heart as big as… . You know.
The event that sets Novak’s plan in motion is a late-night phone call Ben receives from a sobbing Texan named Ty (Boyd Holbrook). It appears that Ty’s sister Abilene has just been found dead of an opioid overdose, and since Ben was the love of her life, Ty knows her boyfriend will want to travel 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 connections during her failed attempt to make it as a singer in New York. But Ty’s grief wears Ben down in an admittedly unlikely turn, and soon he’s in the Lone Star state, surrounded by Abilene’s loved ones, goaded by Ty to track down his sister’s “killer” because no way her death was an accident. After his initial concerns subside, Ben agrees to help. He scents a long-form hit, though his shrewd, accomplished producer (the excellent Issa Rae) shrewdly reminds him that “not every white person in America needs to have a podcast.”
This material could have gone wrong in so many different ways that it’s frankly amazing that it hardly ever goes wrong any from them. From the moment Ty meets Ben at the airport and on the ensuing car ride tells the New Yorker it’s him, we’re drawn into the expectation of a top-notch Blue State v. Red State comedy and a timeless Fish Out of Water comedy, Ty is reminiscent of a character from his least favorite Liam Neeson film: Schindlers List. But while Novak’s film is a lot of fun — and so are we — with the division, Abilene’s family is constitutionally unable to define the precise magic of fast-food chain Whataburger (“It’s always there!’), it is not uncommon for the slightly cocky aesthete Ben to be smiled at in a friendly manner. In his attempts to sound hip to the savvy Texans who might not care about such things, Ben routinely and hilariously discusses the theory of Chekhov’s gun and his reasons for attending “South By” and the rodeo scene, which features Ben training Horse’s Ass by cheering for the wrong team is a masterful piece of BJ Novak comeuppance courtesy of Novak himself.
The anticipation doesn’t stop there, however, after Ben takes his upcoming podcast seriously — one given the initially crude but catchy title Dead White Girl – and the truth behind Abilene’s death becomes increasingly difficult to discover. Ben has an encounter with a seemingly affable record producer, Hayseed (Ashton Kutcher), who proves to be extremely astute in his analysis and a Harvard grad to boot. He meets up with a supposedly malicious drug mule (Zach Villa) who reveals a deeply buried sensitive side. He is kindly accepted by Abilene’s mother (successor‘s wonderful J-Smith Cameron), whose phraseology erupts with hidden fire. No one is quite who they appear to be Revenge, and so does Ben. We first see him at a fancy Manhattan rooftop party, where he trades self-pitying jokes with John Mayer (!) and complains about how white men are losing their stereotypesed-type are tragically misunderstood. Halfway through the movie, it turns out that Ben does indeed have a soul… which is what that means BJ Novak has a soul. I have to admit: I didn’t see that coming.
A lot of Revenge engages in pompous — or maybe just pompous — discussions about the specific nature of the red/blue division, as well as our differing views on the Second Amendment, the terrain of law enforcement, the guilt in opioid addiction, and whether Frito Pie, which is essentially a bag of Fritos with chili and nacho cheese should make a viable dinner. (My opinion after watching the movie: hell yes.) But most of those detours are fantastically effective — Kutcher, who I didn’t realize I missed as much as I do, beautifully delivers some of Novak’s best-written monologues — and the film also offers honest suspense (and a shocking car explosion), huge laughs, legitimate local flair, a truly unanticipated narrative climax, and the best film role the ridiculously charismatic Boyd Holbrook has ever had. In the end I loved Revenge, and loved it even more because I wasn’t remotely prepared for it. I can understand why the film took about a fifteenth of what it did in its opening weekend DC League of Super Pets did. As a juicy, largely unheralded gem that audiences will gradually discover over the years, I hope it lasts 15 times longer.
DC LEAGUE OF SUPER PETS
And from what, you may ask DC League of Super Pets himself – the animated action comedy that gives Superman a devoted pooch, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and a nefarious supervillain in the hairless guinea pig, voiced by Kate McKinnon? It’s good. My eight-year-old friend, who graciously accompanied me to the screening, thought it was okay too, although she didn’t giggle nearly as much as I did (which, admittedly, wasn’t much). Maybe it was just tiredness. I had already recruited them at two-week intervals this summer light yearthen the latest minionsthen paws of fury, and now this. How many crazy cartoon adventures can someone who isn’t in third grade endure before curling up with a good book instead? How many can a professional critic who is 46 years her senior?
Since this type of high-concept, low-risk animated entertainment has become only tolerable and occasionally fun because it brought joy to my young companion, I don’t have much to say about writer/director Jared Stern’s super pets, given that she seemed to tolerate the film more than actually enjoy it. And attempting a plot synopsis would be like releasing a monkey on a computer keyboard; There may be random words that make sense, but they don’t have to mean anything. Suffice it to say that you and your kids are bored and neither of you feel adventurous enough Marcel the Shell with shoes on (an occasionally dark film that I have to admit my eight year old pal made Not seem to like), you could certainly do worse.
Kevin Hart voices a gruff shelter dog and sounds uncharacteristically relaxed; This may be the first time in recorded history that the comedian appears to be at least excitable member of the 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 screamer as Batman, never better than when a perfect pregnant break leads to Bruce Wayne’s unprompted sharing, “I miss my parents.” And I have no idea who came up with the idea of casting Natasha Lyonne as the turtle who is given miraculous super speed. But whoever did it deserves either a raise or a statue in their honor, given the distinctly grown-up joy Lyonne delivers after her Merton McSnurdle takes off at the speed of light, lands in an unfamiliar patch of land, and asks using the performer’s singular Jewish -mama cadences, “Where the #*&@! am I?!” Needless to say, in DC League of Super Pets, this expletive is hidden in the image. But I have to say it’s been ages since a line in a PG rated children’s comedy made me laugh like this #*&@! difficult.