You may know B.J. Novak as Ryan Howard in The Office or for his brief roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After all his success, he is ready to make his mark in many ways with his feature directorial debut. Novak writes, directs, and stars in Vengeance. In this dark comedy thriller, he portrays Ben Manalowitz, a journalist and podcaster traveling from New York City to Texas to investigate the death of a girl he hooked up with. This is an original, fascinating concept with some thought-provoking messages wrapped in a film that ultimately doesn’t have the staying power it could have.
If you have seen Novak’s work on television, you know his style: a biting, wry sense of humor mixed with a heart at the center of it all. The opening sequence features much of that, with Ben having a humorous conversation with a friend on a Brooklyn rooftop. As he tries to get his podcast off the ground, we get a look at his hookup lifestyle through a few fun moments before he gets a call in the night. The devastated voice of Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) sobs through the phone, inviting Ben to the funeral of his late sister, believing Ben to be her boyfriend.
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A series of misunderstandings turn Ben into a fish out of water as he arrives in West Texas. Ty suspects that his sister was murdered, and he wants Ben’s help to get to the bottom of it. Ben seizes the opportunity to write a story about self-deception in the face of grief, and with that, we have our movie. The writing is sharp for much of the film, with Novak’s characteristic humor shining through in awkward situations that Ben tries to talk his way out of. What holds the film back is how the comedy is more likely to get you to chuckle rather than laugh out loud.
Much of the humor in this movie arises from the cultural differences between the characters. Despite its American setting, a New York journalist finds himself in a Southern culture entirely different from his own. Rather than humiliating the South for all its stereotypes, Novak writes a comedically cringe-worthy scenario where Ben finds himself in the middle of gun lovers, passionate sports fans, and Whataburger. The divide between Texas cities is written for comedic effect, and there is a lot for Texas residents, in particular, to get a kick out of.
The movie also has a fun group of supporting characters. Ben is introduced to the Shaw family, who play off Ben in hilarious ways. The relationship between Ben and Ty’s younger brother leads to some very heartfelt moments. Novak knew how to build the relationship between Ben and the family without slipping into cliché sentimental territory. The result works well despite Vengeance feeling emotionally empty on occasion.
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Ashton Kutcher appears in his first film since 2014 in a supporting role as Quinten Sellers. He shines in the few scenes he is in, committing to the mysterious character. Holbrook gets a chance to show off his comedic chops in his role, as does much of the supporting cast. However, Novak has the most on his plate, juggling directing and portraying the lead role simultaneously, and he does an excellent job with both. However, we’ve seen much stronger directorial debuts from filmmakers. Novak does little to separate himself from the rest with a story that doesn’t have the emotional power it could have had.
Furthermore, the film’s final five minutes take a turn down a darker, unexpected route that doesn’t feel earned for the protagonist. The mystery isn’t as investing as it could have been, and the comedy isn’t as strong as Novak’s other work. However, Vengeance ultimately provides the story you want to see with a lot of commentary on American culture and human nature. This film has a lot to say about our perception of things and how our biases skew how we feel. The result is a little blander than it could have been, but it ultimately works as a smart, decently written debut from Novak.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 6 equates to “Decent.” It fails to reach its full potential and is a run-of-the-mill experience.
Disclosure: The critic attended a press screening for ComingSoon’s Vengeance review.