Starring B. J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Isabella Amara, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, John Mayer, Elli Abrams Bickel, Louanne Stephens, Zach Villa, Nathaniel Augustson, Grayson Berry, Eli Bickel, Melissa Chambers, Sean Dillingham, Ryan Hammond, Ivan Hernandez, David Hight, Adrianne Lovato and Micah McNeil.
Screenplay by B. J. Novak.
Directed by B. J. Novak.
Distributed by Focus Features. 94 minutes. Rated R.
“There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players, and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.” – Pete Hamill
They say things are different in Texas. The feature film debut of writer/director/actor B.J. Novak is all about that.
It seems weird to say the word “debut” about Novak – even at only 42, he has been a force in our lives for well over a decade. He was a regular in the popular TV series The Office and Punk’d. He has been in movies like Inglourious Basterds, Knocked Up, Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder. He’s written two books – one collection of stories and one children’s book. He was the showrunner behind the FX anthology series The Premise and has been announced as the head of a show planned for HBO Max called Young People.
However, Vengeance is Novak’s first film in which he is wearing lots of hats – writer, director, executive producer and lead actor. It is mostly a big success. It is smart, funny, trenchant, and resonant about modern culture.
The wheels come off a bit at the end, but the film still works.
Novak plays Ben, a writer for The New Yorker (there is a running gag where everyone introduces him as working for New York magazine) who is enjoying his hipster lifestyle in the big city. He throws himself into his work but is vaguely unsatisfied with his career path. He’s constantly dating but has no interest in anything serious.
His life is thrown for a loop when he receives a call from Texas. It appears that a girl who he had hooked up with a few times has died, and her family seems to believe that he is her boyfriend. They insist he come down for the funeral, and rather than just explain that she was just a booty call to him, he ends up going down.
Once he arrives in Texas, her brother (Boyd Holbrook) tells Ben that even though she was officially said to have OD’ed, he is certain that his sister had been murdered, although he has no proof of the fact. He stays with her family, who are all a bunch of eccentrics. The town is full of gangsters and drugs. Everyone denies his ex having a drug problem with the exact same quote, “She wouldn’t even take an Advil.”
Ben sees an opportunity to put his career on the fast track and pitch a podcast, about the modern world, conspiracy theories, and the different lifestyles in Texas. His editor (Issa Rae) knows that dead white girls are catnip in the true crime podcast community, so she agrees to it.
From here on, the film is mostly a fish-out-of-water tale, with the slightly snobby elite Ben investigating what happened, interviewing locals, learning the ways of Texas and finding that most of them are much savvier than he may have imagined. And he comes to really like his hosts, and the very different lifestyle of the Lone Star State.
However, after most of the film being smartly funny, the film takes a very dark turn in the last 15 minutes. It only partially works. The climax of the film relies on someone suddenly doing something which seems to be extremely out of character. It’s a little hard to buy into the ending, although it is definitely quite a twist.
Still, even with the slightly shaky denouement, Vengeance is an impressive film debut. I’m looking forward to seeing what Novak does next.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 29, 2022.