B. J. Novak, most famous for cowriting and acting in the long-running comedy series The Office, is making his screenwriter-director-leading man debut with the Blumhouse-produced film Vengeance. I enjoyed it, mostly. But I should note that I was tired, and seeking mild amusement, and still preoccupied with the extraordinary impact of Jordan Peele’s new film, Nope, which was playing at the same theater. Everyone in line was going to see Nope, so I had what amounted to a private screening.
Vengeance starts out as a seemingly low-stakes dark comedy about an experience of extreme New York vs. Texas culture clash. The film opens on two media-world douchebags at a party — Novak playing Brooklyn-based writer for the New Yorker Ben Manalowitz, and Novak’s real-life pal John Mayer as his friend — endlessly checking their phones and talking over each other. The topic of conversation is the way their lack of commitment to anyone or anything is actually an admirable way to maximize the glorious possibilities of life. It’s an exchange ironically punctuated by their repeated use of the phrase “one hundred percent,” indicating total, all-in affirmation.
What follows is the story of how Ben gets arm-twisted into spending time in remote West Texas after one of several young women he was hooking up with dies of an apparent overdose, and her grief-stricken brother Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), assuming Ben was her boyfriend, guilts him into attending her funeral.
Conspiracy-minded Ty believes that his sister, Abilene “Abby” Shaw (Lio Tipton), who’s described as such a straight arrow “she wouldn’t even take an Advil,” couldn’t have overdosed — therefore she must’ve been murdered, maybe by the Mexican drug cartel. Riding away after the funeral in a pickup truck complete with gun rack, Ty begs Ben to help him “seek vengeance” for Abby’s death. Quietly appalled, Ben tries to talk his way out of it by saying that one of his personal boundaries involves not avenging people’s deaths.
He also adds that he’s not used to acting like he’s in a Liam Neeson movie, thinking of all those action films with guns blazing. But Ty reassures him, “You do look like you’re in a Liam Neeson movie, though. What’s it called again? Schindler’s List!”
Then Ben realizes that this could be his opportunity to develop a hot new podcast to pitch to Eloise (Issa Rae), a high-level producer who’d told Ben back in New York that he lives too much in his head and needs to work from his heart a little more. The result is Dead White Girl, (“the holy grail of podcasting”) conceived in cynicism to take advantage of the combined public interest in true-crime murder mysteries and supposedly authentic stories of local color featuring real-life heartland characters.
Once in rural Texas, Ben is the typical fish out of water, floundering around in a culture he doesn’t understand and holds in contempt. Only he has no one to exchange ironic looks with out on those desolate plains. Inevitably, while staying with Abby’s family and interviewing locals about her life and death, Ben begins to see his trite red-state assumptions breaking down and getting more complicated by the people he meets. This part of the plot, though predictable, is often pretty funny, and based on Novak’s own experiences traveling extensively in rural Texas doing research for this film:
“I thought that these huge dudes with beards and pickup trucks would be very suspicious of a Hollywood blue-state guy, and I found the exact opposite,” he said. “It’s the warmest culture I ever found. I went to Easter dinners and people would show me the poetry they had written.”
Ben’s guilt over having hardly remembered Abby’s name, and the kindness and attention her family pays him, begin to undermine his feelings of urban superiority. And then his facile assumptions are definitely shaken up when he meets Quentin Sellers (a surprisingly effective Ashton Kutcher), a Stetson-hatted sophisticate who named his record producing company after Andy Warhol’s Factory. Their initial conversation evokes the great moment in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) when the reluctant black sheriff (Cleavon Little) of a crude white Western town meets the erudite gunslinger the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), and asks, “What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”
Sellers explains that the problem with the rural Texas heartland is there’s so much creativity boiling in the people who have nowhere to go with it, it starts generating home-grown madness and fantastical mythmaking that drives cultural divisions. Sellers as the seemingly all-compassionate spokesperson for the region is presented as doing a far better job than Ben at his self-proclaimed mission as a podcaster-theorist explaining America to itself.
The movie darkens as Ty’s conspiracy-theory murder idea starts to look closer to the reality of Abby’s death. And by the end of the film, which attempts to get deep fast with a surprisingly sudden gusher of philosophical exchanges followed by a violent conclusion, the question is: Does B. J. Novak pull it off?
For me, he didn’t manage it. But that’s okay — it’s the first try with a feature film for this television veteran. Novak is satirically funny enough in an era when furious satire and dark comedy ought to be the rule rather than the exception — he should be given a chance to try again.