When a movie’s producer, writer, director, and leading star are all the same person, one can’t help but take notice. It usually means this person feels particularly passionate about the story being told – so much so that they wear multiple hats just to make sure everything is done exactly to their specifications. Actor B.J. Novak, who most audiences will know from “The Office,” makes his big screen directorial debut with “Vengeance,” a well-meaning comedy that has genuinely funny and touching moments but becomes too caught up in its messaging. This is always the risk that comes when one person has this much control. One wonders how the film’s better elements may have been elevated had Novak brought in a few more creative voices to help further develop his vision. That he opted to go it alone is truly a shame, as the film features some hilarious exchanges, memorable performances, and generally good intentions, making its ultimate third act stumbles all the more disappointing.
The story follows a self-obsessed New York writer named Ben Manalowitz (Novak) as he is trying to break into the narrative podcast field. He has a few grand ideas about America, but he needs a good story to hang them on. He then receives a call from the family of an old hook-up named Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), who apparently considered Ben a much bigger part of her life than he did. Abilene has died of an apparent drug overdose, and Ben flies to Texas to attend the funeral. While there, Abilene’s brother, Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), expresses his belief that she didn’t die by accident; rather, he believes she was actually murdered. Ben views Ty’s delusion as a clear indicator of denial, but he is intrigued, nonetheless. He decides that he will stay in Texas and record the story of Ty’s search for his sister’s murderer, hoping to get enough material for a solid true crime podcast. Along the way, Ben learns more about Abilene’s family and their way of live, which underlines his own feelings of emptiness. Things become more complex when Ben realizes that there might actually be more to Ty’s suspicions of foul play than his initial gut feelings.
There are multiple elements to this story, which makes sense, given the investigative nature of the script. Theories are suggested, leads followed, and suspects questioned. And, throughout it all, Ben reshapes and presents the search for Abilene’s killer in the kind of slick, digestible package that has become all too familiar to true crime podcast listeners. Novak handles this well, but it all leads to an ending that is both overwrought and overwritten, going on and on until the audience can’t help but roll its eyes. Perhaps this, too, is Novak’s way of commenting on true crime podcasts, which so often try to be trenchant and meaningful in their final moments. If this is Novak’s intention, he succeeds. It doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling ending of a film, though.
While the investigation is the driving force behind the movie, the story functions first as a fish-out-of-water story, as Ben attempts to navigate the foreign culture he is now a part of. As he gets to know more about Abilene’s family, he sees them as more than just stereotypes – they’re real people with real feelings and intellects. Soon, he is allowing himself to actually enjoy the local customs and cuisine, feeling closer to these people than he ever has with his own family or friends back in New York. This element of the film probably works best, as it effectively humanizes those characters whom other films might simply dismiss as country bumpkins.
It helps that Novak surrounds himself with solid actors, including Louanne Stephens (of “Friday Night Lights” fame), Issa Rae, and the incomparable J. Smith-Cameron. The film also features Ashton Kutcher, turning in a soulful performance as a record producer. Novak himself does well enough and truly pushes himself as an actor, but the real MVP here is Boyd Holbrook, who finds just the right balance of humor and anger as the extroverted Ty. Holbrook has been in the film industry for a while now, often playing important, but ultimately bland characters in films like “The Predator” and “Logan.” This film, however, gives him a chance to really cut loose and enjoy himself. He is, by far, the best part of the film.
Unfortunately, though the film tries to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural (and the blue and the red states), there are several moments when it’s clear that Novak still very much sees these characters – and, by extension, these types of people – as inherently different and himself – and people like him – as obviously normal. He is no doubt trying to capture Ben’s perspective, but he never seems quite able to distance the film from it. Instead, though there are often moments of genuine connection between Ben and the other characters, many of the reluctant concessions that Ben makes too often feel patronizing, an olive branch extended to those who – though obviously misguided – have good hearts.
This is best illustrated in a scene of Ben breaking down and screaming at Abilene’s family, citing every wrong-headed thing they believe, from climate change to vaccinations. While we are meant to think that Ben is being cruel, the writing, acting, and tone suggest that the film ultimately agrees with him. From that moment on, the family’s attitude towards him is much colder. Again, what we are meant to feel and what the film conveys don’t match up. We’re supposed to think that the family’s feelings are hurt, but what is actually conveyed is their refusal to face the facts that he was confronting them with.
As frustrating as these moments are, I admire Novak for at least attempting them. A story like this is a balancing act, and even the most skilled directors can have a difficult time managing it. B.J. Novak is a talented writer and director, and his desire to find the shared humanity between different cultural groups is a noble one; however, he never quite has a handle on the nuanced tone required to make a story like this work. This is particularly unfortunate, as any misstep with this kind of film will lead to a tone that can be read as condescending and dismissive – no matter the intention of the filmmaker. “Vengeance” often has its heart in the right place, but the rest of it can’t quite catch up.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.