This movie is a story for sale to the general public, in which the protagonist hunts for a story to sell to the general public. He learns the deep and abiding value of stories, and then loses all faith in stories sold to the general public. It’s a bit like The Last Psychiatrist listened to Shit Town while swiping on Tinder, then roasted everyone responsible through the medium of film. One reviewer called it “egotistical and grandiose” and accused the filmmaker of “undersell[ing] his characters, and belittl[ing] his audience.”
Y’all might enjoy it as much as I did.
Aspiring podcaster Ben Manalowitz yearns to be “a voice,” an intoner of wise observations on modern America. He is not a man with an idea desperate for a microphone. He is a man with a microphone desperate for an idea. In a casual chat with his friend who runs a podcasting network, he pitches his grand social theory about - I don’t remember.
She says no one cares about your theories. Tell them a story.
Unfortunately, Ben is barren ground for stories, because he is the kind of person who has friendships like this:
Ben Manalowitz: Do you ever wonder, if you did find something deeper with somebody, if that would somehow be more meaningful?
John: I do, sometimes. Like right now, I'm casually dating, like, six or seven different women. But I do wonder, deep down, what it would be like to seriously date two or three.
One night, mid-hookup, Ben gets a phone call from a stranger with a Southern accent who tearfully breaks the news that, “Abby is dead.”
Abby who? Ben roots through his contacts and finds an “Abby Texas,” a fling whom he barely remembers.
The stranger, Abby’s brother Ty, is under the impression that Ben is Abby’s devastated boyfriend. “She talked about you all the time.” He pressures Ben into flying to Abilene, Texas for the funeral.
There, Ben discovers Abby's death has been ruled an accidental overdose, but Ty is convinced it was foul play, possibly involving local drug dealers. Ty wants Ben’s help avenging her, because, “We were the men in her life.”
Suddenly, Ben has a story. It’s about dumb hicks living in denial of their own dysfunction, inventing conspiracies to make themselves feel better. He sets out to make his breakout hit podcast. He plans to call it “Dead White Girl.”
From there, the movie plays out kind of like a thread here on The Motte. It serves up hot takes which are doused by cooler ones, only for another to flare up. Conflicting evidence makes a mess everywhere. A highly educated, heterodox man strolls in and out, communicating solely through hypnotically eloquent insight porn.
The movie makes an effort not to idealize or demonize either its pretentious East Coast elites or its rubes in flyover country. It presents both as having their little shibboleths. In one scene, Mr. Insight Porn admits he went to school “in New Haven.” Ben admits that he went to school “in Boston.” This little exchange nicely mirrors the recurring “Bless your hearts.” (It would have been better if the movie hadn’t explicitly translated the latter.)
The movie does rely on predictable fish out of water comedy, but its funniest moments play with stereotypes. In one scene, Abby’s teen sisters tell Ben that, “We’re not really a gun family.” They only have… a long list of rifles, shotguns, and handguns, including the kids’ personal sidearms. The girls are baffled by the suggestion that this might be cause for concern.
Literary fellow that he is, Ben explains, “There’s this playwright, Anton Chekhov, and he says that if there’s a gun in Act One of a play - “
“There’s no guns in any one of his plays I can think of,” says the overweight sister in the leopard print pants. “Cherry Orchard, no. Uncle Vanya, no - ”
“I’m not actually that familiar with his plays,” Ben says impatiently, before steering back to his point.
Of all the guns introduced in Act One of the film, none is fired by the Texans.
Vengeance is, fundamentally, a murder mystery, and I honestly loved that this storyline was ultimately played straight. Ben makes a hilariously milquetoast vow to Abby’s family that he will identify her killer and achieve justice through podcasting: “I will find this person or this generalized societal force, and I will define it. I'll define it.” But he truly does investigate. He truly does find the killer. In the end, her death is exactly what he believed it was, but it is also exactly what her brother wanted to believe. After all the irony and ego-puncturing, we get the traditional, unironic satisfaction of rough justice.
The movie wants to be about so many things: the yawning social emptiness of endless freedom, choice, and atomization; our various self-medications for the resulting tedium and emotional starvation; the meaning achieved through narrative; the immortality achieved through leaving a record of one’s existence; the empathy but also the dehumanization of seeing other people as characters; our acute vulnerability when we become characters to the general public. It’s a lot to pack into a fish out of water murder mystery comedy. Many viewers will find it pretentious, unfocused, and shallow. Probably it is. The denouement strains the suspension cables of disbelief, and for some they’ll snap.
But I like this egotistical and grandiose movie. And I laughed really hard at this:
Ty Shaw: [Abilene, Texas] is the most, uh, wretched, godforsaken stretch of land on the face of the earth. And I'd never leave.
Ben Manalowitz: Yeah. That's how I feel about Twitter.