B.J. Novak makes an ambitious leap from The Office to the big screen with Vengeance, his debut feature as writer, director, and actor. He asks a complex question: What would it take for a striving-to-be-hip young man to embrace the word that provides the movie with its title? Part “red state” satire, part revenge drama, the film is admirable in its willingness to explore a deep theme. Novak's reach exceeds his grasp a little bit, although that in no way diminishes the many elements that work. I'd much rather see a filmmaker aim high and not quite hit the bullseye than aim low and decimate it.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a New York City journalist who gets a call one day that his “girlfriend” Abiline has died, her body found on the side of a road in rural Texas. Her family wants him to come down for the funeral. What they don't know is that she wasn't really his girlfriend, she was just someone he hooked up with a few times. Nevertheless, not wanting to add to the family's grief, he agrees to attend. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) confides in Ben that he doesn't think Abiline died via an overdose, as the official record states. He thinks she was murdered. Even further, he wants to find the person responsible and kill them. Ben senses an opportunity, pitching a podcast to his producer Eloise (Issa Rae). It will, he claims, uncover a potential true crime, while also addressing pretty much everything from America's economic divide to the hidden secrets of small-town life.
Eloise accepts the pitch, so Ben embeds himself with Abiline's family. He quickly learns law enforcement is no help, as they all toss the case around like a hot potato. He discovers that Abiline was an aspiring singer who worked with local music mogul Quentin Sellers, played by Ashton Kutcher in a surprisingly sharp and penetrating performance. He discovers the joys of Whataburger restaurants. The more he investigates, the more he comes to believe the murder theory might be denial on Ty's part.
There are two concurrent halves to Vengeance. The first is a fish-out-of-water comedy about this self-stylized New York intellectual trying to comprehend working-class Texans. One scene finds Ben making coffee and asking Ty's other sister Jasmine (Dove Cameron) how she takes hers. Her reply: “In the mouth.” Mocking blue-collar country folk often reeks of shooting fish in a barrel, except that Novak is smart enough to make Ben the butt of jokes, too. We often laugh as much at his snobbery as we do at their rough edges. He ends up making a salient point about how we tend to focus on the differences between us and “others,” rather than on the similarities. Dividing ourselves into categories of rich/poor, conservative/liberal, city/country, etc. only serves to drive a wedge right through the heart of America.
That half of the movie is perfectly strong. The second half is a little weaker. Not catastrophically so, just a touch less solidified. Vengeance strives to show how Ben transforms via his journey in Texas. These parts of the movie are played as drama, especially during the last half hour, which contains one or two hard-to-swallow plot developments. The upshot is that he learns how protected he is because of his class status (even as a struggling writer) and how unprotected and vulnerable others are. Finally understanding the true inequity of the world sparks a feeling of anger inside of him. Ben's transformation isn't 100% convincing, with his actions in that last section coming a bit out of nowhere. Or, more appropriately, out of a too-obvious desire to make a statement. Novak's heart is in the right place, his screenplay simply hasn't laid all the groundwork to completely sell that idea, however appealing the idea may be.
Even when it stumbles, Vengeance is always entertaining, and I never once lost interest in it. B.J. Novak's thematic aspirations deserve admiration. He could have cashed in with an easy comedy, but he went bolder. Casting himself in the lead is the best approach, too, because the script is already imbued with his distinct voice. With good supporting turns from Kutcher, Cameron, Rae, and Holbrook – along with consistent laughs – the picture certainly stands as one of the gutsiest comedies of the year.
out of four
Vengeance is rated R for language and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.