B.J. Novak pulls it off. Impressive directorial debut. Part comedy, part slow-burn mystery.
6 min read
3 ½ / 4 Stars
Link to the Talking Cinema podcast deep dive
Why I love this movie
I came into this movie with low expectations. Actually, I came in with negative expectations. I thought it would be a blue state “know-it-all” who would make fun of the red state “dimwit” and that it would be a fake vengeance movie. The type of vengeance movie where there is no vengeance.
I was wrong. Yes, there was blue-state/red-state comedy, but then it became a mystery.
And I’ll give the ending away since I do give away spoilers since this movie review (and pod) is a deep dive, and you can’t do a deep dive if you don’t talk about the plot, the twists, and the ending.
But I never thought the character, Ben, played by B.J. Novak, would kill the bad guy. I never thought B.J. Novak would write a character that he would play himself that would kill another character. But he did. The balls of him to make a movie that makes fun of himself - because I think he did write the character to show that Ben is a loser. Not a bad guy. But a guy who is a big city snob. He only cares for himself. He cares only about his work, hooking up with chicks, wanting to be a voice that others hear and become famous in that elite academic way, and having a lot of fun with alcohol, parties, and more sex. Your classic workaholic hedonist that many upper middle classic liberal school graduates want to be.
That is why I love this movie. B.J. Novak decides to make fun of himself and people like him, and he doesn’t shy away from being a vengeance movie. And for it to be a legit good vengeance movie, you have to kill the person at the end. No way around it. No jail time. No bad guy is killing himself. You have to kill the bad guy or have the bad guy kill the good guy while the good tries to kill the bad guy. That is it. And B.J. Novak follows through with it.
- When it gets to Texas, it gets good. The funeral is great. The funeral has a picture of Ben. You can’t even see the dead girl’s face. Ben thinks of things to say, and he pulls it off. Short and sweet, all while ad-libbing the whole thing.
- I love the guns in the truck. I think B.J. Novak fell in love with the red state.
- Calling his producer Eloise - I think a single person’s dream is drinking, being on the internet, and living in a $2 million apartment. Not sure if they are making fun of that person that lives in that apartment. I’ll be honest, because I have a kid, and I’m in my 40s, and I don’t want to rule the world like I used to, but when I see people live like that, I just feel sorry for them. I feel like they live an empty life, and I wonder if B.J. Novak and Issa Rae, who plays Eloise, know that. That is why they made that apartment so outrageous - clean looking, expensive, great furniture, her drinking wine on the couch, face mask, nice clothes. Eloise calls him out - his life is empty. All he cares about is being an intellectual, hooking up, and being famous.
- “Dead white girl, the holy grail of podcasts.” - Eloise
- I never liked Ashton Kushner, but he is great in this movie. But it is obvious that he is the bad guy or the secret good guy. There are very few movies where a famous actor plays a small role at the beginning of the movie, and they don’t turn up to be bigger later in the movie. I can think of one movie - Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee, which has Willem Dafoe in a small, no-nothing role.
- “You’re wasting my time, I might as well waste yours” - Gangster Sancholo.
- “Why I like Whataburger, it’s always there.”
- The scene where Shaw’s family is waiting for Ben after he checks out of the hospital. He is surprised that they are waiting for him. Also, I liked how they didn’t play up that scene. They could have made it gut-wrenching with crying, but it was kept low-key. I liked it.
- The vengeance scene. I would prefer the shooting scene with no music playing. And maybe more of a darker tone. But that is just me picking on it. I was more surprised that he pulled it off. He shot him. And missed because he is not a guy with any experience with guns. The chances of missing the shot would be more realistic. I do wonder if Ben will suffer from PTSD because of this. Killing someone is not something you can just brush off.
- In the end scene, Sharon Shaw, Abilene’s mom, played by J. Smith-Cameron, talks about life is about regret. It starts with regrets and ends with regrets. And the in-between is all regrets — very good dialogue.
Quinten, played by Ashton Kutcher, was a great character. But it was flawed. I don’t think he would so brazenly give away to Ben that he is the one that left Abilene to die from a drug overdose.
Sure Quinten could have gotten away with it, as he said, but it would have ruined his reputation. Also, is he involved with dealing drugs? That would get him in trouble.
Or maybe he thought Ben would not have gone through with the podcast because of the scrutiny the Shaw family would have gotten. And Ben would want to protect his career and reputation and never release the pod.
I thought the Whataburger scene in the parking lot was a little much. But I think the movie needed one angry rant about the blue versus red states. Also, I think it needed to play up that Ben can be condescending douche.
The script is good because of its ending. The jokes and light-heartedness in the beginning make the ending so much better.
B.J. Novak can direct. I would have liked a darker ending. No music score. But other than that. No complaints. I loved the Texas landscape. It makes good cinematography.
The stand-outs are the cast that plays the Shaw family. Everybody is so good — I love Boyd Holbrook at Ty Shaw and the mom, played by J. Smith-Cameron. J. Smith-Cameron has a small role, but she is great in this movie.
And B.J. Novak is great. He doesn’t go over the top. And that is smart. There is no woe in me with his character.