Still of B.J. Novak and Boyd Holbrook in Vengeance

Film Review: Vengeance

Film Reviews

Director: B.J. Novak

Blumhouse Productions
In Theaters 07.29

A good trailer can be both a blessing and a curse. While it can be vital in selling a movie, it also runs the risk of setting audiences up for disappointment if the film itself doesn’t turn out to be quite what they were expecting to see. Vengeance, the comedy-mystery that marks the directorial debut of actor/writer B.J. Novak, had a great trailer, showcasing a stellar cast and quirky, subversive sense of humor that left me consciously trying not to let my expectations run wild.

Vengeance stars Novak as Ben Manalowitz, a pretentious and self-absorbed womanizer who works as a writer for The New Yorker and who yearns to make his mark on the world by breaking into big league-podcasting, where he can be more than a writer—he can be “a voice” (even if he has nothing in particular that he’s yearning to say). One night, Ben gets a call from a man named Ty (Boyd Holbrook, Logan), who informs Ben that his “girlfriend”  is dead. Ben doesn’t even register who the man is referring to, as Ty’s sister, Abilene Shaw, was only one of a number of semi-regular meaningless hookups whose number was stored in Ben’s phone. 

It’s clear that she saw Ben as much more, however, and her family insists that he come to West Texas for the funeral. While the official story is that Abilene died of an overdose, Ty believes that his sister was murdered and declares his intention to take vengeance upon those responsible, certain that Ben will eagerly join him. Though Ben balks at the idea from a personal standpoint, he’s well aware that a “dead white girl” is the Holy Grail of jumping-off points for a hit podcast, and he agrees to help by recording everything as he and Ty “investigate” what happened to Abilene. Ben endears himself to the Shaw family along the way and finds himself becoming more attached than he expected. As new developments start to raise questions about the validity of the case, Ben faces uncomfortable truths about himself.

While the trailers had me all geared up for something in the vein of a classic Joel and Ethan Coen dark comedy, Vengeance is less off-the-wall and more conventional than I’d hoped. It’s still a good movie, and Novak, who is best known as Ryan Howard on The Office, shows a lot of potential as a filmmaker. Novak’s script is peppered with witty dialogue and amusing characters, and there’s some interesting social commentary, especially about the prejudgments and dismissive generalizations we make in the way we view each other. Vengeance also nicely satirizes the callous opportunism of an industry built on exploiting America’s disturbing addiction to “true crime” as a form of escapist entertainment. Early on in Vengeance, Ben pitches an idea for a podcast about the division in America to his producer friend, Eloise (Issa Rae, Insecure), though he’s floundering for an insightful angle. This unintentionally foreshadows the film’s biggest shortcoming: While Novak tries for commentary on polarization and flirts with ideas about the rise of conspiracy theory culture, he never finds any truly meaningful insights, seeming almost afraid to take risks by delving too deeply into the subject. Vengeance works best as a character-based story and as a treatise on regret, self-examination and human connection.

The strong ensemble cast of Vengeance is made up of performances that compliment each other rather than vie for the spotlight. Novak plays “likably unlikable” well, and he makes for an effective fish-out-of-water protagonist. It’s Holbrook, however, who is the clear standout here. A great character actor whose leading man looks have left Hollywood unsure what to make of him, Holbrook shines brightly in this role, making Ty a surprisingly endearing character. Ashton Kutcher plays memorably against type as Quinten Sellers, a record producer full of homespun wisdom. Rae, who makes a welcome presence in absolutely anything, is terrific as Eloise as his only connection to the outside world. 

Vengeance is a sharp, entertaining film that sometimes has trouble finding its footing, leading up to a surprise ending that doesn’t entirely work yet deserves credit for being one you won’t see coming. It’s ambitious and involving enough to be well worth the time and effort, and it’s a solid first entry on what has the potential to be an impressive directing filmography for Novak. –Patrick Gibbs 

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