Updated: Jul 29
The opening moments of B.J. Novak's directorial debut, Vengeance, may throw fans of The Office off for a moment or two. The opening shot is of a figure dying in an empty oil field, only a bright cell phone screen cutting through the dark night. This is followed by an off-putting conversation between Novak's Ben and his friend, played by John Mayer. They talk about sexual conquests and how they name women they have slept with on their phones. "Random house brunette" could either mean she's a book publisher or they hooked up at a random house party.
Novak wrote the film as well as directed and stars in it. His character Ben is a writer for the "New Yorker" who gets a random call from an upset Texan who tells him his girlfriend is dead. We know from that opening conversation that Ben has no idea who this is and he obviously meant more to her than she did to him. Perhaps out of guilt or maybe a sense, there is a story afoot, Ben agrees to fly to Texas for the funeral. While there, he is pushed to speak at her funeral. Her family all knows who he is. He knows almost nothing about her.
Ty (Boyd Holbrook), her brother, confesses on a ride back from the funeral that he believes she was murdered. Seeing a chance to tell a wild story, Ben quickly pitches this as a podcast. Ty wants Ben to help him avenge the death of her sister. Ben just wants to make something that is recognized as good. However, he has such a low moral compass that he is willing to exploit this family to do it. At least, he is at first.
Novak's script mostly avoids treating the Texas characters here as simplistic. Sure, there is a city boy versus country folk throughline here but Ben is such a phony that it undermines any pretentiousness from creeping in. The fact that Ben is often more a joke keeps the film from being condescending to its small-town characters. Ben even learns that his assumptions about them are wrong.
Novak is a strong comedic writer and Vengeance has a lot of laughs. The best humor bubbles up from these characters, like when the central family tries to explain their love for Whataburger, "It's always there." Ashton Kutcher surprises as a local music producer who charms Ben. Kutcher brings a weird, cool energy to the role that really works. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief gives the film a panoramic look, emphasizing the wide open space of the setting that contrasts all the secrets within it.
The final act of the film is the weakest element of Vengeance. The film constantly seems to be building to some clear idea about shallow attempts at fame and status. The final act Ben is involved in seems to muddy this. It leaves the film with nothing more than surface pleasures. However, there are plenty of those. Clever jokes, an engaging set of characters, and a few heartfelt moments go a long way here. While the film may not add up to something as punchy as I hoped, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.