‘Vengeance’ movie review: BJ Novak’s directorial debut leaves no gun unfired

‘The Office’ star reprises a familiar character type, alongside a memorable performance by Ashton Kutcher, in a mystery-thriller with elements of comedy

August 28, 2022 04:31 pm | Updated August 30, 2022 02:22 pm IST

B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE

B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Patti Perret / Focus

Levity amidst tragedy is a difficult combination to capture on-screen. Despite this, Vengeance manages to make a good attempt at it. The film sees BJ Novak play the role of Ben Manalowitz, a self-serving and narcissistic New York journalist with an active, yet seemingly empty, social life.

We see this in an interaction between Ben and John (John Mayer) early in the film. During this conversation, they say things that they each want to hear while justifying their carefree lifestyles. Nearing the end of this we hear Ben ask, both himself and John, whether deeper relationships with others are more meaningful. Through this hopeful question, we are introduced to a characteristic of Ben that we see develop throughout the movie: his morality.

Director: BJ Novak
Cast: B.J. Novak, John Mayer, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron,​ Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Isabella Amara, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Eli Bicke
Storyline: A New York City writer-podcaster tries to solve the murder of a girl he had a romance with, by travelling down south to investigate her death and meet her family
Runtime: 107 minutes

Right after, we hear Ben pitch an idea for a podcast to his would-be producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who pokes fun at his character and some of the grandiose concepts he proposes. It’s at this point we can start to see how self-aware the film really is, and how it foreshadows some of its later scenes.

Vengeance starts to build towards its premise nearing the 10-minute mark with Ben receiving a phone call from an unknown number. He’s being told, by someone he’s never met, that his “girlfriend” Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), is dead. This sets the stage for the rest of the film.

While on the phone, he is cajoled into going to a funeral in Texas since Abilene’s family seems to think of him as her boyfriend. This leaves Ben in a predicament since Abilene was just another casual fling to him. While in Texas, Ben is again convinced by Abilene’s brother Ty Shaw, to stay for longer as the latter is certain that Abilene was murdered... unlike what the police say.

Only this time, Ben, the opportunist he is, looks to take advantage of the situation that he’s been put in. He wants to document Ty’s as well as other locals’ beliefs and conspiracies for his podcast, since he considers their theories on Abilene’s death to be delusional.

This gets the ball rolling as we are introduced to the rest of the cast in this small Texas town, far removed from the ‘civilized world’ Ben finds agreeable. The film’s portrayal of the Texans manages to toe the line between a walking caricature of a stereotype and a regular 21st-century person. The few cases of them being portrayed as ignorant are done for an intended comedic effect. The obvious exception is Ashton Kutcher’s character, who is the anti-thesis of everything Ben thinks a small-town music producer is like.

Similarly, we see New Yorkers, or at least people similar to Ben, being portrayed as snobby, obnoxious and as people who just look at news pegs rather than the people behind them — a character type that Novak seems to enjoy playing and is suited to play. Some of the more memorable parts of the film are reserved for Novak, having written himself into embarrassing and audience-pleasing moments throughout the movie.

The majority of the movie is a well-paced mystery with a few twists to throw you off the trail. There is a level of intrigue maintained till a certain point, as we uncover alongside Ben, the mystery behind Abilene’s death. We also come to like Ben as he is humanised through his stay in the town and his interactions with Abilene’s family, becoming more empathetic as he is forced to see how he lacks awareness of both himself and others.

Unfortunately, the film follows a predictable overarching narrative making a few conclusions obvious to the audience before they happen. Vengeance also addresses a few contemporary social issues, portraying some in a comedic light and others in a more serious one; this social commentary is on the surface level though, with few exceptions being the takes on podcast journalism, living in the moment, and the condescending attitude some metropolitan residents adopt.

Ultimately, without giving too much away, the film is definitely worth a watch with it being well-acted, humorous and engaging. The key takeaways for the audience would be: Making mistakes are a part of life, value time spent with others more, and that wherever you are there’s always a ‘Whataburger’.

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