After writing and directing episodes (and of course costarring) in The Office, B.J. Novak turns his triple threat talents to his big screen debut Vengeance. This dark comedy takes his Big Apple journalist Ben Manalowitz and bobs him into the Texas waters of Whataburgers, guns, and football. That’s where liking the wrong college gridiron squad is enough to get your car blown up (something that’s very believable to this reviewer typing this in Columbus, Ohio).
We meet Ben on the East Coast having a vapid conversation at a party with a guy named John played by none other than John Mayer. They extol the virtues of being single along with proper text etiquette for a late night booty call. His detachment to commitment is evidenced by the way he saves women in his phone. For example, there’s “Brunette Random House Party”. This eventually causes confusion because Ben can’t remember if that listing refers to a hookup from a casual gathering or a dark haired girl from an event put on by the publishing giant.
One of the entries is Abby Shaw. Ben hasn’t seen her for a little while and one night (while in bed with the aforementioned Random), he gets a call that she’s dead. Not only has she passed, but her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suspects murder. And there’s no ifs, ands, or buts as Ben is expected to travel to Abby’s home Lone Star state for the funeral. The Shaw family, from sassy grandma to a little brother called El Stupido (he’s not offended because he doesn’t speak Spanish), were led to think their guest was her serious boyfriend. The Shaw clan also assumes Ben will be up for finding and extending Texas style justice to the killer.
Ben makes the trip for business and not revenge reasons as he believes this could make an intriguing and profitable podcast. His producer Eloise (Issa Rae) agrees. She reasons that dead white girls always sell. It’s not until Abby’s demise that Ben starts to learn about his former fling and maybe even care about her. He needs to figure out whether she was offed or if it was the opiate overdose that was offered as an official explanation. This means talking to the locals who are constantly quirky and consistently armed. Sometimes it feels like Novak’s screenplay has its characters act opposite of their caricatures for a quick and cheap chuckle.
One exception is Ashton Kutcher’s record producer where Abby was cutting demos. He has two big scenes and shines in both. The first is when the movie is on an upswing. The second occurs as this is collapsing under the weight of its admirable ambitions with an ending that rings false.
This isn’t a real story – it’s about how a faceless legion of podcast listeners will react to these characters (never mind that they’re actual people). At least that’s how Ben and his producer approach Abby’s demise. The script is filled with many fascinating ideas about divisions in the country represented by the lead’s New Yorker in this desolate setting. Novak doesn’t quite manage to bring it together though there’s plenty of genuinely funny dialogue and setups along the way. By the third act, his character’s actions defy believability.
Vengeance may eventually serve as our recording of a first time director somewhat clumsily finding his way. The targets hit are mostly in the comedic space while those with heftier themes tend to misfire. There’s times when I wanted to give the filmmaker a Texas sized toast for the attempt. When the script’s less effective elements pop up… well, bless his heart for trying.
**1/2 (out of four)