Tribeca Review: B.J. Novak’s Feature Directing Debut ‘Vengeance’

·4 min read

B.J. Novak is looking for American truth in the dark comedy Vengeance, his feature directorial debut. He’s amassed an all-star cast including Issa Rae, Dove Cameron and Boyd Holbrook for the movie about a city-slicking mid-30s man who travels to Texas and gets more than he bargained for in a comedy of errors created by his own hubris. The story is told with biting wit and fiery sarcasm, but loses direction by the end. For a debut, its enjoyable, but could use some fine tuning.

Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is a single man in NYC. With a new job at The New Yorker and a supportive editor in Eloise (Rae), he’s on top of the world. As he parties with musician John Mayer and they talk about their sexual conquests, he tries to come up with ideas for a successful podcast. During the night he receives a phone call from Ty Shaw (Holbrook), who mentions his sister Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), whose body was found in an oil field and died of an overdose. Ty swears his sister was in love with Ben and that he is her boyfriend.

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Feeling bad about the situation, Ben leaves New York and heads to rural Texas to his “girlfriend’s” funeral. When he arrives he meets the rest of the family including Abilene’s mother Sharon (J. Smith Cameron, Dove Cameron), sisters Paris and Kansas City (Isabella Amara), little brother El Stupido (Eli Bickel) and Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens). Ty believes his sister was murdered and asks Ben to help him get revenge. After meeting the family, Ben is inspired to turn the whole ordeal into a podcast: Dead White Girl. Armed with his recorder and a talent for extracting information, he plans to get to the bottom of what happened to Abilene.

Ultimately, Vengeance is a coming-of-age story about a thirtysomething man finding his voice. Through this story, Novak injects himself and his frustrations with this country, and how the word “truth” has become diluted as the United States has split itself into blue vs. red. He funnels this idea through the characters we meet. In the end he learns the truth is different for everyone and there is nothing he can do about that. Ben also comes to understand more about women and his relationships with them, and this could be why the various female characters’ only job is to teach him and be in the background of his life. They are there to help him but aren’t allowed to help themselves. At least the film admits this is purposeful.

Every act has a moment that slows down the pacing, due to character Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher) and his philosophical mumbo-jumbo monologues. That didn’t completely annoy me because the dialogue had some accuracy to it, and it shows Kutcher playing against type. He’s doing some master-class acting that I dare say is the best he’s ever been as the tall, dark and suave music producer. Novak actually gave the actor a mature role where Kutcher can show off the full range of his talent.

Vengeance deals with some dark themes, and Novak tries to cram everything in his head into 120-minute movie and the message he wants to portray sometimes comes of as preachy and morose. Yes, not all Texans are smart, and some city boys are douchebags–can we get to the part where they find common ground so the story can move on. When that common-ground moment does happen, there is a sense of peace that comes over Ben, and he’s able to let go of his self-centered behavior.

The big reveal is this: what Ben learns is that everything is bigger in Texas, including their expectations and their reality. He connects with Abilene through old videos of her singing and gains a sense of closeness with her that he refused to give when she was alive. Ben draws closer to her family through a sense of cultural exchanges. They don’t understand one another sometimes, but they do relate through the sense of grief over Abilene and their love of life.

Vengeance isn’t necessarily about who is smarter or more truthful, but self-awareness and finding a balance within oneself and in connection with others — not in the agree-to-disagree sort of way, but how those who intellectualize everything (like Ben) without making room for love, are just as devoid of humanity, as those who love without intellect (the Shaws). The most crucial take away from his journey is that things are black and white, and how does a man like Ben learn to exist in the grey.

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