Dir. B.J. Novak
B.J. Novak clearly wanted to say something important with Vengeance, his feature debut as a writer-director, and that’s the film’s biggest problem. It’s not the wanting to say something, of course, but the straining for importance and the nakedness of the intent. Novak also stars as Ben Manalowitz, a writer for New York magazine with an itch to branch out into podcasting in order to make a grand statement about the state of America today. Vengeance tweaks the character’s pretensions and ambitions but also largely shares them, a fuzziness of vision that results in a film that never finds any sort of focus. Set largely in remotest Texas, it’s a mix of blue state vs. red state clichés and self-conscious attempts to sidestep and subvert those clichés. But even the moments in which Vengeance goes out its way to avoid condescending to its small-town characters feel condescending.
Ben’s drawn to Texas by a middle-of-the-night phone call informing him that his girlfriend, Abilene, has died. This provokes confusion both for Ben and the woman in his bed who, like Abilene, he thinks of as one of his many casual hook-ups. Only Abilene apparently didn’t see it that way so, drawn by a mix of guilt and professional ambition, Ben soon finds himself in the dusty middle of the Lone Star state speaking at Abilene’s funeral. When Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suggests that a) Abilene’s death wasn’t the accidental drug overdose it appeared to be, and b) the New York boyfriend should join him on a hunt for the real killer, Ben’s reluctance lasts only as long as it takes to realize there might be a story here. So he pitches a podcast to his friend Eloise (Issa Rae) and soon finds himself the creator of the sure-to-be-hit series Dead White Girl. (And, yes, Ben eventually realizes that this is pretty ghoulish, but only after several scenes of Eloise nodding in admiration as she listens to his brilliant work. Every aspect of Vengeance wants to have it both ways.)
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Ben thinks he’s going to find a story about why we’re so eager to embrace conspiracy theories and so reluctant to face up to the harsh realities of 21st century life. And maybe something about the internet and how we all live in our own bubbles. And about how social media has made us more concerned about image than the things that might genuinely make us happy. And about how what really divides the country… etc., etc. Vengeance wants to treat the impulse to try to say all this in a podcast as naive, but its own observations are only slightly less trite, and the mystery it wraps them in is never particularly clever, either. (Anyone who’s cracked the code about how to figure out the killer in an episode of Murder, She Wrote should be able to identify the bad guy.)
The film’s not without its comic moments, like a scene in which Ben has to explain his fondness for the University of Texas to a hostile rodeo crowd. (It has a great film program, he argues.) But they’re swallowed up by an unshakable sense of phoniness. It’s the sort of movie in which a character can be a one-dimensional clown in one scene then drop factoids about Anton Chekov in the next, and not because it reveals something about a multifaceted individual but because it serves as a lesson to Ben about what happens when you assume. In the end, Vengeance makes an ass out of everyone, but not in any ways that feels timely or true. —Keith Phipps
Vengeance begins playing in theaters tonight.
Dir. Lena Dunham
Here are some adjectives I’d use to describe Sharp Stick, writer-director-star Lena Dunham’s return to feature filmmaking after her HBO series Girls and other projects: Contrived, misjudged, banal, ridiculous. A few more: Audacious, searching, fearless. It takes courage to risk the missteps that Dunham makes here, or even to conceive of a lead character like Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 27-year-old naif whose sexual awakening seems to have started, immediately before the film opens, with her falling off the turnip truck. Her wayward journey eventually forks off into such a baffling place that it’s hard not to admire the wrongness of Dunham’s impulses, just because so few would be willing to follow them. And yet the film bumps smack into real insights along the way about how young women can have a tenuous grasp on their self-worth, and how sex can act as a tricky barometer for it.
Wearing prim, flower-print dresses that make her look like Laura Ingalls Wilder just stepped out of a time machine, Sarah Jo has a personality to match her cornpone name, despite sharing a Los Angeles apartment with much more experienced, down-to-earth women. Her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has been deposited on the other end of multiple divorces and bad relationships, and her sister Treina (Taylour Paige), first shown rehearsing a sexy TikTok dance, seeks influencer fame. But Sarah Jo, who works with special needs kids, went through menopause at 17, and carries the scar of a radical hysterectomy she had at 15, events have led her to a premature shelving of her sex life.
That changes, with startling suddenness, when an in-home job taking care of a boy with Down syndrome leads to an affair with his father, Josh (Jon Bernthal), whose frustrations with his pregnant wife (Dunham) make him vulnerable to her advances. Yes, her advances. One of the counterintuitive twists in Sharp Stick is that the inexperienced Sarah Jo ends up being the one to talk the older married man into sex. The seduction scene is Dunham at her best, a comedy of errors that’s raw and edgy and even a little bit sweet, and it’s important to the film that Sarah Jo is going after what she wants. (Or what she thinks she’s supposed to want, anyway.) She takes ownership of her pleasure and her mistakes.
To say anything too specific about where Sharp Stick goes after Sarah Jo loses her virginity would spoil the screenplay’s go-for-broke turns, but in her innocence and willful degradation, the character she immediately calls to mind is Emily Watson’s in Breaking the Waves. Such a comparison isn’t flattering to Dunham’s film, which lands on a note of sex- and body-positive affirmation so trite that it could be printed on the side of a coffee cup. And the scenes with Sarah Jo’s family, despite Leigh’s welcome saltiness, carry no insight into how she could turn out so differently from her mother and sister. But Froseth commits to Sarah Jo’s alien willfulness, which at times makes her seem imported from a Todd Solondz comedy, and Bernthal is especially good as a charismatic and tender man who’s also a bit of a loser. Even when Dunham seems intent on driving them all into a narrative ditch, it’s worth the rubbernecking. — Scott Tobias
Sharp Stick opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, and expands from there. It will be available on digital platforms August 16th.
wow. I don't want to know any more about it, but I sure can't tell if I want to see Sharp Stick or not....
In a fit of madness, I bought a ticket a couple of weeks ago to see Vengeance this coming Sunday. I'm not sure why, since something about B.J. Novak has always been like nails on a chalkboard to me. Keith, you have shaken the sense back into me. I'm canceling my ticket and going to see anything else. Maybe Sharp Stick.