If you haven’t checked in on B.J. Novak since The Office, you’ll be surprised by the pitch-black tone of his directorial film debut, Vengeance. There are great laughs aplenty here, but the film presents an overall bleak view of humanity as it relates to our ability to connect and communicate. This is a stellar premier film.
Novak pulls triple duty as the film’s writer, director, and star. He brings the perfect mix of smug arrogance and bewildered empathy to Ben Manalowitz, a New York writer (and aspiring podcaster) who is coasting through every moment. Ben’s catchphrase is “100 percent”, but the audience quickly comes to see that Ben isn’t really giving 100 percent to anything. His life is all surface, no depth. He believes he’s having deep conversations about his work and the meaning of society, but he’s looking at his phone the whole time. His relationships are nothing but informal hookups.
Then Ben gets a fateful call from West Texas – his former girlfriend (well, they had hooked up a few times), Abilene Shaw, has died of a drug overdose. Abilene’s family are under the impression that she and Ben were a real couple, and invite him to the funeral. Ben shows up in West Texas out of pity, but quickly decides to stay for more selfish reasons: Abilene’s family suspects foul play, and Ben can’t turn down a chance to tackle the “holy grail” of podcasting: a dead white girl. Ben’s editor mails him some fancy podcasting equipment faster than you can say “true crime”, and he’s off to discover the truth about Abilene (and hopefully make himself famous in the process.)
I’m still in awe of this supporting cast. Boyd Holbrook somehow manages to balance sincerity and absurdity as Ty, Abilene’s revenge-crazed brother. Could this be Ashton Kutcher’s best work since Dude, Where’s My Car? (don’t get it twisted, I mean that as a sincere compliment!) Kutcher’s Quintin Sellers is complex and layered. As a small-town record producer, Quintin is equally opportunistic and charismatic. Quintin provides a twisted country-fried contrast to Novak’s Ben, and their few scenes together are some of the strongest of the film. The female characters are unfortunately more thinly written, and mostly function to help us better understand the men.
A film like this doesn’t work without a rock-solid script, and this one delivers. Good comedy writing ensures that the pace of the film is maintained; great comedy writing is concerned with showing us deeper truths about character that may produce a smile, but also a sting. The soundtrack is also self-aware – I’ve never laughed so hard at a Lana Del Rey song.
Vengeance is a dual threat – a legitimately funny comedy that also lands sincere dramatic moments. It left me excited for whatever Novak has coming next (hopefully a podcast.)