Although B.J. Novak is best known for playing Ryan Howard on “The Office” for eight seasons, he’s also been racking up TV writing and directing credits for a great deal of his career, including writing 15 episodes of “The Office.” But nothing quite prepared me for how sharp his comedy blade could be with his feature writing/directing debut, Vengeance, in which he plays New York-based radio/podcast journalist Ben Manalowitz, who leads a shallow existence of dating multiple women but connecting with none of them. As a result, he gets wrapped in the possible murder investigation of one of these women—a journey that takes him to West Texas, a world he knows nothing about but is eager to learn, if only to get a killer true-crime podcast series out of it.
An opening scene at a party where Ben is hanging out with his best friend (played un-ironically by musician John Mayer), sipping on drinks and talking about how cool they play it with the ladies, revealing their stunted emotional growth in a moment so perfectly realized, it could have been a flawless short film. Thankfully, Novak the filmmaker had loftier goals. He gets a call soon after from the Texas family of a woman named Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), who Ben hooked up with a few times even though Abilene sold him to her parents as her boyfriend. She’s died of an apparent overdose, which everyone who knew her said was impossible because “she never took so much as an Advil”—a claim repeated by multiple people, making us immediately suspicious.
Ben sees possibility in this story of a lonely woman who clung to the idea of him and also covered up her pain with drugs, and he pitches the idea to his radio producer Eloise (Issa Rae). But after the funeral (during which Novak is asked to speak about Abilene, whom he barely knew), her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) gives Ben a few quick lessons about Texas and eventually admits that he believes Abilene was killed and wants Ben to help him find the murderer and kill him. Although Ben is shocked by this, it does open up his story to include the role of conspiracy theories in America and how people buy into them because the truth is too painful. It’s clear in these early moments that Ben sees himself as above these gun-loving, rodeo-attending Texans. But as the film goes on and he gets to understand the mindset a bit better, he sees the benefits of living this life.
Vengeance is by no means a movie about a liberal seeing the value of red-state living, but it does see the disservice that can occur when people judge others based on their accent and certain values. Other members of the family include sister Jasmine (Dove Cameron), who just wants to be famous for anything; other sister Paris (Isabella Amara), perhaps the most level-headed of the group; the younger brother (Eli Bickel), affectionately referred to as El Stupido, although he seems to have had the closest relationship with Abilene; and mom Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), whose kindness and wisdom seems to be a guiding force to her children.
Ben is so determined to get to the bottom of Abilene’s death that he takes a tour of those who knew her best, including record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), in what might be my favorite performance by the actor. Sellers is not actually from Texas, but he sees himself as something of a dream-maker, and he saw a lot of potential in Abilene as a singer, or so he says. Considering he only has a handful of scenes in the movie, there are so many layers to the Sellers character that he becomes one of the most important players in Ben’s story. As much as Ben thinks he’s got these rednecks pegged, it turns out that just as he’s wrapping up work on this podcast series, he discovers that everyone he’s talked to has had his number as well, and that makes him feel gullible and pissed off, leading to some truly unexpected twists in the final act. I should mention that Vengeance is a from Blumhouse Productions, which quite often means the movie will have some horror elements. This is not the case here, but you should prepare yourself for just about anything from Novak’s whip-smart screenplay, which features what is clearly a contender for best ending of the year.
For a great deal of Vengeance, you’re likely going to dislike Ben to varying degrees, and that seems fully by design. Novak’s written version of the character sometimes moves counter to his performance. You want to punch him for being arrogant, but without the arrogance, the film’s lessons would get lost, and the movie wouldn’t be nearly as good. It’s a phenomenal debut feature, but it also has the complexity and heightened resonance of literature. And above all else, it’s viciously funny, and I can’t wait to see what Novak brings us next as a filmmaker.
The film is now in theaters.
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