Vengeance is a dark-comedy/satire with a whole lot on its mind. Writer/director/star B.J. Novak has attempted to tell a story about 1) our society’s need to fill in the world’s blanks with theories, conspiracies, anything that helps us explain to ourselves what we otherwise cannot understand 2) the desire to analyze that need 3) the detachment from personal experience that can be caused by social media or hook-up culture 4) the massive disconnect between big city life and small town life 5) media (specifically podcasts) that exploits crises/tragedies (such as the opioid epidemic or even murder). That makes for a very busy 102 minutes (not including the end credits).
The fact that Novak succeeds at making space for all of these topics shows his skill as a writer. The fact that his points only land approximately 2/3 of the time shows this was maybe too ambitious for a big-screen debut.
B.J. Novak makes some fascinating observations in Vengeance. He also has several funny lines. He has no problem taking shots at his own on-screen persona, allowing the locals he assumes he is smarter than to make him look foolish. However, the movie can’t help but come off as slightly condescending in spots. Additionally, it stumbles over a few plot points which somehow both assists with its message and makes its story feel stretched out.
Vengeance ends up somewhere between biting off more than it can chew and being an astute look at what has led to the “opinion over facts” approach many people take to figuring out the world these days. It is entertaining enough to be closer to the latter, even if I kept wanting to like it more than I did.
Ben is a writer who dreams of making a podcast explaining why America has become so divided. After receiving a phone call from the brother of a woman he hooked up with a few times (her family was led to believe the relationship was more than that), Ben travels deep in the heart of Texas for her funeral. Learning the brother is convinced her drug overdose is a cover-up for a murder, Ben feels he has found the perfect story for his podcast and decides to stick around to observe.
Right there you can see a bunch of the themes Novak hopes to explore. There is the educated New Yorker who thinks he can exploit the “dumb” country folk to further his career. There is the commitment-phobe forced to think about what he is missing out on by avoiding a real relationship. There is someone connecting dots that probably aren’t there in an effort to make a bad situation fit better. Conceptually, this all works. In execution, the murder-mystery aspect kind of gets in the way.
The investigation is far less interesting than the conversations Ben has with the people he encounters in the process. Novak tries for too conventional a conclusion, when the story he is telling isn’t conventional. Perhaps that is intended to be part of the satire, though it made the ending a tad bit of a letdown.
While it may be overstuffed, Novak’s ambition is also part of why Vengeance is so intriguing. The marketing clearly positions it as a mystery/comedy/thriller, yet that is quite misleading. It is more like social commentary/satire/comedy, with a mystery arc to provide it with a structure. The mystery itself, along with its solution, are used as a way for Novak to talk about disconnectedness and the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to accept the truth. They really are compelling subjects and when Novak hits with them, he hits big.
His lead performance is enjoyable and he gets what may be a career-best performance from Ashton Kutcher as a philosophizing record producer, but the movie is mostly a showcase for Novak’s talent as a writer. Maybe he needed a director who could filter it better, making sure the ideas don’t occasionally bump into each other. Regardless, there is a lot to be impressed with here.
3½ out of 5
B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz
Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw
Issa Rae as Eloise
Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers
J. Smith-Cameron as Sharon
Eli Bickel as El Stupido
Dove Cameron as KC
Isabella Amara as Paris
Louanne Stephens as Granny
Written and Directed by B.J. Novak