Vengeance (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – A writer from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with and travels down south to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her.

My Take – With actor B.J. Novak finding immense success for his role as Ryan Howard in the well acclaimed NBC sitcom The Office, his key parts in features like Inglourious Basterds (2009), Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Founder (2016), and as an author for acclaimed books, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories (2014) and The Book with No Pictures (2014), it was only natural that his next step would be to finally make his feature directorial debut.

Backed by Blumhouse Productions, and an all-star cast, that includes the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Issa Rae, J. Smith-Cameron and Boyd Holbrook, supporting his onscreen character, Novak seemed ready to make his mark in many ways with this dark comedy thriller. And while the resulting film is original, fascinating and sincere, with some thought-provoking messages wrapped around, it is also a somewhat messy creative vision that ultimately doesn’t have the staying power it should have had.

Yes, Novak’s script is darkly funny and combines big city cynicism and his character’s moral ambiguity with a small-town noir where a close-knit community keeps terrible secrets. However, much of the film is uneven and forced. Especially the final act which takes a too last-minute turn, that is simultaneously the most exciting and inane part of the film, but also a delayed turn for a story that said nothing in route to suddenly decide what it wanted to be all along.

Admittedly being a fan of Novak (mainly due to my eternal love for everything The Office) I found the overall experience to be stunning and commendable, but we’ve seen much stronger directorial debuts from actors turned filmmakers.

The story follows Ben Manalowitz (B. J. Novak), a journalist working for the New Yorker magazine and a hopeful podcaster, who wants to make something that will bring a divided country back together. An idea he pitches to a famous podcast producer, Eloise (Issa Rae), who believes that though his idea is good in theory, it doesn’t have much off a substance to succeed.

However, opportunity comes knocking when he gets a phone call at the middle night from a man named Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), who introduces himself as the brother of a woman named Abilene (Lio Tipton) that he briefly dated when she lived in New York to pursue a music career, and goes on to inform him that she has passed away.

It appears that Abilene, who is believed to have died from an overdose, told everyone that her relationship with Ben was more serious than it really was while Ben just saw her as just another woman on his phone’s contact list. So, out of a mixture of guilt and ambition, Ben journeys to small-town Texas, located around five hours from the city of Abilene, for the funeral but also with an eye to gather material for a true-crime podcast, especially when Ty tells him that he suspects that Abilene was murdered.

With Eloise agreeing to back him up, Ben decides to stay and mix in with his supposed girlfriend’s family and town to get to the bottom of the mystery and find Abilene’s killer. What ensues is a series of misunderstandings and assumptions, which lead to utter hilarity for all.

It helps that writing is sharp for much of the film, with Novak’s characteristic humor shining through in awkward situations that Ben tries to talk his way out of. There is also 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. Ben’s city-slicker-out-of-water narrative gets only mildly complicated by the eloquence and folksy wisdom of Texas locals like Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a philosophically-minded small-time record producer who used to work with Abilene.

However, Novak’s greatest saving grace as a director tends to be his trust and investment in his fellow cast members, who almost make you want to care about Abilene’s family members. Much of the humor in this film arises from the cultural differences between the characters.

Despite its American setting, a New York journalist finds himself in a Southern culture entirely different from his own. Rather than humiliating the South for all its stereotypes, Novak writes a hilarious cringe-worthy scenario where Ben finds himself in the middle of gun lovers, passionate sports fans, and Whataburger. They never really act in a way that suggests that there’s much more to them beyond Ben’s initial assessment, like when they fawn over a fast food joint and then get upset with Ben when he presses them to explain why.

Novak is no stranger to social commentary, and the film is loaded with clever ideas, insightful viewpoints, and well-timed laughs. It’s an entertaining tale that successfully hews to and then subverts true-crime podcast tropes. Providing a fun, and surprisingly accurate, reflection on what makes murder stories so enticing.

Novak clearly had some things he wanted to say, and this film often feels like it was his outlet for venting his thoughts about humanity. The film wants to say something about the take economy and how its fixation on the systemic often means that individual stories’ textures and weight get overlooked. There’s a lot of philosophical dialogue where characters disclose their feelings about relationships, regret, isolation, morality, etc.

Unfortunately, with ambition also comes a scatterbrained tone. Like the jarring tonal shifts between comedy, dark drama, and ponderous dialogue, which makes the plot feel all over the place and often directionless. And of course not to forget the film’s final five minutes which take a darker and unexpected down turn that it doesn’t feel earned for the protagonist. In an effort to covers so much thematic ground, it goes far beyond ones reach, making the sudden shift feel more like a shock ending just for the sake of shocking. And Novak does little to separate himself from the rest with a story that doesn’t have the emotional stake to make the desired landing.

Without a doubt, B. J. Novak has the most on his plate, juggling directing and portraying the lead role simultaneously, and he does an excellent job with both. Boyd Holbrook show off his comedic chops as Ty, injecting the character with charm and naivety that make for an electric juxtaposition to Ben. Issa Rae absolutely thrives, saying out loud what viewers might be thinking. Nevertheless,

Ashton Kutcher was the best part of the film and his character really elevated the film. Appearing in his first feature role since 2014 (a cameo in the awful Annie), Kutcher completely commits to his mysterious character. The supporting cast comprising of J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron, Louanne Stephens, Isabella Amara, Eli Abrams Bickel, John Mayer, Clint Obenchain and Lio Tipton are also effective. On the whole, ‘Vengeance’ is a thoughtful and confounding comedy thriller that fails to stick its landing.

Directed –

Starring  – , Issa Rae, Boyd Holbrook

Rated – R

Run Time – 107 minutes

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