Both sides now | Film reviews | Salt Lake City

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There is a level on which Revenge writer/director BJ Novak—the veteran of Office making its movie debut – might get a little too meta for its own good. After all, this is a film in which Novak plays a writer trying to develop a story about how America is divided – a character written by Novak himself, in a story that is about how America is divided. As the narrative builds, the character’s arrogance in thinking he can make such a big statement is part of the joke at his expense. Meanwhile, Novak does it for real, right in front of our faces.

It’s a pretty nifty trick that Novak pulls off as well as he does. Buried inside a time-worn comedic premise, there’s something pushing and pushing on the state of a divided nation, but even if it risks becoming a serious example of ‘both sides’ / “can’t we all get along”, he finds a unique answer to the question he asks.

Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a “blue check” New Yorker contributor who is trying to transition from a platform to a “voice” – which, in 2022, naturally means trying to start a podcast. He has an unexpected opportunity when a phone call in the middle of the night informs him of the death of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), a woman whom Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) believes to be Ben’s girlfriend. , but for Ben it was just one of many casual hookups. Tricked into attending Abilene’s funeral in Texas, Ben learns that Ty believes Abilene’s official cause of death from a drug overdose cannot be true. And suddenly, Ben has an angle with a potential story about a dead white girl — “the holy grail of podcasting.”

The misguided identity/fish out of water premise that has acerbic New Yorker Ben interacting with many real-life Red State-ers sounds like something set up for the Doc Hollywood treatment, where the arrogant coastal elite learns what really matters after slowing down and hanging out with salt-of-the-earth folks. Novak establishes Ben’s personality well with an intro scene in which Ben and a pal at a party barely make eye contact with each other, scrolling their phones non-stop and responding to every comment. on the other with a “100 percent” reflex. The table is set for a bunch of awkward interactions with Abilene’s family members, or a philosophical local music producer (Ashton Kutcher), or a visit to a rodeo, which will serve to punch holes in the esteem. of Ben’s self.

For a while, that’s absolutely where the second act seems to be heading, including moments when Ben watches videos of Abilene and starts seeing a real person where he just saw “a number in my cell phone.” . Fortunately, Novak is a clever enough writer to add a little more spice to Ben’s various performances, such as one of Abilene’s sisters challenging him on the concept of “Chekhov’s undrawn weapon” because she actually read Chekhov’s plays. Revenge isn’t structured primarily for laughs, but Novak knows where to find them when he really wants to, including possibly the best joke at Twitter’s expense I’ve ever heard.

The buildup, however, is toward some great speeches that end up exploring what is true of the stereotypes we might hold about our fellow Americans — the “head-to-heart” dichotomies and the lure of conspiracy theories — and why ultimately, these stereotypes may not be what divides us the most. To say more would spoil the sense of discovery, but Novak shows a keen sense of how the way we communicate in the 21st century shapes how we see the world and how we see others – and how nothing could be. more worthy of a violent response than the kind of fashionable nihilism that argues that “nothing means nothing”.

That doesn’t mean that Revenge is the kind of film that drops its truth-bomb finale with such force that it leaves you immersed in its complexities. Novak ultimately has too much of the sensibility of a comedy writer to believe that he has formulated a new paradigm thesis for our time. Unlike Ben, however, he seems to want the things he writes to mean something, rather than just amplifying his voice. For Novak, differentiating himself from his protagonist means understanding when it’s time to listen.

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