Greetings again from the darkness. Cultural differences between various states are a big part of what gives the United States its flavor of diversity. The west coast is much different from the east coast, and both coasts contrast with the Midwest. Even within states, the differences can be fascinating. Think of upstate New York versus Manhattan, or the forests of Redding versus the glitz of Los Angeles. Perhaps no cultural comparison of states is more stark than that of the home pride of Texas versus the elitism of New York City. Writer-director-producer-lead actor BJ Novak seizes the opportunity to serve up these differences on a platter, while exposing a touch of reality and hope from both geographic areas.
You likely recall Mr. Novak as Ryan, the young staffer on the TV series “The Office” (in which he also had a hand in writing and directing some episodes). He quickly establishes that stereotypes will be hit head-on, and his self-awareness is at play in an opening sequence featuring Novak’s Ben Manalowitz and his bro-buddy John (a cameo by John Mayer). They improvise the douchey attitude of city-dwelling types whose interest in one-night gratifications overrides any deeply buried thoughts of a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex. Their constant use of “hundred percent” to express agreement in the latest lame point made by the other won’t be the last humorous sequence that also conveys a bit of disappointment in society.
One night, Ben receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) informing him that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died unexpectedly. Ty believes Ben was Abilene’s serious boyfriend, while Ben has to search his phone to discover that she was but one of many casual hook-ups. Roped into flying to Texas for the funeral, Ben stumbles through the eulogy by saying “she loved music”, a sentiment that endears him to her family. Despite having a coveted job as a writer for ‘The New Yorker’, Ben has his sights set on becoming a popular podcaster, and things fall into place when Ty discloses his conspiracy theory that, rather than die of an afterparty overdose in an oil field, his sister Abilene was murdered – perhaps by a Mexican cartel. Ben quickly pitches the idea to renowned podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who green lights “Dead White Girl.” OK, so most of the humor here is a bit dark.
This much information is included in order to give a taste of the twists and turns that Novak has in store. Abilene’s family embraces him for staying to investigate, not understanding that his goal here is professional advancement rather than solving a case … a case that was closed by the local law enforcement – an incompetent and apathetic Mike and Dan. It’s Ben’s interaction with the family that are key to many of Novak’s points. Mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, “Succession”) is quietly wise. Granny (Louanne Stephens, “Longmire”) is excessively direct. Abilene’s two sisters, Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), are respectively, a goth wanna-be filmmaker and a rudderless dreamer of becoming famous. The little brother, nicknamed “El Stupido” by the family, is played by newcomer Eli Bickel and he has a particular phobia that adds yet another touch.
Ben’s investigation finds him crossing paths with a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who displays polar opposite personalities in front of his crew and then behind closed doors with Ben. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is local record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Quentin is a smooth talker who impresses Ben with his philosophical meanderings, while donning attire that pops with flair. It’s also during the investigative stage that Ben learns all there is to learn about the sanctity of Whataburger for Texans, and how those in West Texas view the big cities of Dallas and Houston … again, more humor and truth.
My description of Novak’s film is ‘observational dramedy’. He utilizes the current political divisions in the country and blends it with the dominance and corruption of social media. By embracing stereotypes, he manages to pull back the curtain and expose the humanity that exists, as well as the darkness in some. The abrupt finale is startling as it seems to go against many of the points Novak makes throughout, but it’s clear he has a bright future as a filmmaker with something to say.
Opens in theaters July 29, 2022