B.J. Novak of ‘The Office’ fame, makes his Screenwriting and Directorial Feature Film debut in ‘Vengeance’.
Vengeance brings the polar opposites of American society together in film. And, it explores the best and worst stereotypes of New Yorkers and Texans in a much more serious film than the trailers would have you believe.
The Plot — Vengeance
Ben Manalowitz lives the good life in New York City. ‘Single and ready to mingle’; Ben, lives the life of a bachelor; dating woman after woman. And, he barely bothers to learn any more than her name, and the place she came from.
Ben, played by B.J. Novak, writes for The New Yorker, and Podcasts with Eloise, played by Issa Rae. He seeks to find his voice and his fame, over intellectualizing everything along the way.
Then, Ben gets a call in the middle of the night, a man weeping on the other end of the line. A woman is dead, and her brother Ty, played by Boyd Holbrook, thinks Ben is her one and only boyfriend.
Ben tries hinting that they weren’t as serious a couple they think, but Ty fails to pick up on any hints that might be dropped by his sister’s New York booty call.
Before he knows it, Ben is face to face with Abilene’s family in West Texas, speaking at her funeral.
The Good — Vengeance
That Awkward ‘Office’ Feel
No show over the last couple of decades has captured the feel of tension and suspended conflict quite the way the American adaption of ‘The Office’ did. And, who better to recreate that tension than one of the stars and writers of said show?
However, the tension being explored in Vengeance isn’t workplace; it’s both cultural (New York vs. Texas); and vague white lies versus painful honesty. The awkward tension of the audience knowing both sides, yet neither side willing to back down or having the courage to stand up; is quintessential ‘The Office’, and plays out well for sections of Vengeance as well.
Ben doesn’t want to tell the Shaw family he was ONLY hooking up with their dead family member, and the Shaws and the rest of Texas do their best with ‘Southern Hospitality’ to not tell Ben he’s being a complete and total condescending jerk.
Novak does a great job establishing these tensions and stereotypes in the first act, then playing with them in a more deep way as the film goes along.
Yes, B.J. Novak cast himself in the highly unlikable role of the ‘New Yorker down South’, but he also wrote great characters and cast them well for the rest of the film.
Lio Tipton is perfectly cast as the daughter of Texas who has dreams of making it big in New York. Tipton’s solid acting chops come across well, even though her character is dead throughout the film, and we only see her in recordings and memories
A lesser actor wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap between the Shaw family and Ben so effectively, or make the Shaw family’s mourning hit home as deeply.
Boyd Holbrook has a hard role as Abilene’s traditional Texas brother. He must balance the stereotype of the stalwart Texas alpha male, but must also show a vulnerable side coping with loss and put forth the murder investigation storyline without appearing like a joke.
Holbrook manages to pull off both, without wandering off into a caricature of a conspiracy theorist or violent alpha male out for blood. He uses just enough gravitas to establish the presence of the character, put not take up all the air in the room, either.
The Bad — Vengeance
The Tone Of The Trailer
This is not so much a critique of the film, but rather the trailer and the tone the trailer established.
The preview for Vengeance establishes a much more comedic tone than what the finished movie puts forth. The actual film has a much more somber and serious tone, treating the death of Abilene and the impact on her family as legitimate drama, and not making light of the loss or their pain.
This may fit more in line with peoples’ expectations given B.J. Novak’s involvement and their love of The Office, but it doesn’t do justice to this picture, or set accurate expectations for people wanting to see this movie.
The Review — Vengeance
B.J. Novak’s Feature Film Writing and Directing debut feels very much like it sounds. Solid in its characters and ideas, but a little bumpy on its execution.
The New York and Texas stereotypes are laid out quite clearly and specifically. And, you can see and feel why Texans and New Yorkers can easily get annoyed with each other. Neither is ideal, and both offer more than what appears at first glance.
B.J. Novak isn’t afraid to make his character Ben unlikable or even a complete jackass for the good of the story.
Dove Cameron’s little sister character of Jasmine stands out in relatively little screen time, wanting to be famous for the sake of being famous.
Ashton Kutcher’s small town record executive character Quinten Sellers makes a huge impact in what was probably just a two or three day shooting schedule.
And, Issa Rae holds down the fort, having almost all her scenes taking place over the phone, with very little interaction with the rest of the cast and crew.
The character work and perceptions are rock solid for a freshman Writer/Director. And, the plot of the film is simple, but well executed; keeping the film moving at a good clip, without letting the audience get bored.
Vengeance is worth a watch, but you may want to wait for streaming to save a few bucks. The visuals and type of story being told don’t merit paying the full price to watch in theaters.
Solid outing by B.J. Novak in front of and behind the camera. And, solid character performances from a nuanced and talented cast.
Three and a half stars.