B.J. Novak makes a real name for himself as a director and actor (and writer) with the comedy thriller ‘Vengeance’
Are we really ready for B.J. Novak, master film director? Maybe not quite yet. But with his debut feature, ‘Vengeance,’ which he wrote, directed, and stars in, Novak, best known to the world as “Ryan from The Office,” shows as sure a hand at film as any debut director. The movie displays the same smug, self-assured, and self-effacing humor that Novak has made the signature move of his career.
VENGEANCE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: B.J. Novak
Written by: B.J. Novak
Starring: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith Cameron, Ashton Kutcher, Issa Rae
Running time: 107 mins
Novak plays Ben, a generic jerk-hole New York media guy, who contributes to The New Yorker, hooks up with dozens of women a year, and lives in a much nicer apartment than any New Yorker contributor could possibly afford. One night, in the middle of a hookup, Ben gets a phone call from the brother of another hookup. Ben can’t remember this gal. Someone has murdered her. In Texas. And the family thinks Ben is her beloved boyfriend, so he needs to come to Texas for the funeral immediately.
From there, the scene shifts to West Texas, five hours west of Abilene, to be specific, which is appropriate since Abilene is the deceased girl’s name. Ben is looking for a story, and he decides to turn the “murder”, which may not be a murder, into a “Dead White Girl” podcast, with the assistance of a master podcast producer, unrealistically played by the glamorous Issa Rae.
Having made my share of podcasts in my life, I can tell you that the process by which Ben gets his podcast deal and then turns this tragedy into a viable podcast is way too quick, way too easy, and way too unrealistic. And yet the central theme of ‘Vengeance,’ that clueless New York media types turn genuine tragedy into career-defining material, is smart and apt, and Novak handles the subject matter much better than the cutesy-pie TV show Only Murders In The Building, which has its charms but lacks the moral depth that Novak’s script provides.
And as a Brooklyn-tinged Texas resident, I can also say that Novak absolutely nails the vibe of small-town Texas. In the movie’s best and funniest scene, Abilene’s large family tries to explain to Ben the magic of Whataburger. And in the movie’s second best and funniest scene, they try to explain to him the story of the Alamo. There’s also a great set piece at a small-town rodeo, and a surprisingly smart examination of the confused and dysfunctional Texas law enforcement system, especially relevant since the tragedy of the Uvalde school shooting.
Not only that, the plot of Vengeance is legitimately suspenseful and surprising, and full of excellent character detail. Novak is in every scene, and he’s good enough, but Boyd Holbrook, as Abilene’s older brother, steals the show. Ashton Kutcher shows up as an oleaginous music producer, and he’s also excellent, as is J. Smith Cameron, best known as Gerri from ‘Succession,’ as the family’s matriarch. There’s plenty of action, but it’s not always what it seems, and as Ben gets an increasingly strong dose of reality, we start to empathize with him, though maybe, since self-absorption is a B.J. Novak character trait, a little too much.
There are way too many calls to Rae in New York, where she says, “you’ve got a great story here” and seems to be living a lifestyle that’s far too rich and glamorous for a podcast producer. Journalists live a much dirtier, sleazier, and poorer life than Vengeance is willing to portray. The script suffers from a little too much speechifying, some of the characters don’t get a full arc, and the denouement feels a little sudden after a spectacular climactic twist. It’s not a perfect movie, a little too self-assured and self-loving, but it gets a lot about Texas right, a lot about media jerks right, and a lot right about a lot in general. And it’s definitely right about Whataburger. It’s always there.