July 26, 2022

B.J. Novak Makes a Fitting Directorial Debut with “Vengeance” (Review)

Vengeance: a strong word, with potentially stronger significance. A promise to right the wrongs of the past, coupled with a rare sense of justice, no matter how poetic or cruel. It would feel more at home as the title of an action thriller starring Liam Neeson, so why is it instead the name of B.J. Novak’s feature directorial debut?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, instead of being a breakneck adventure, Vengeance fits in with Novak’s repertoire as a steadfast comedy/drama, without endeavoring to subvert genre or break the story mold that Novak has worked his way into.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Last fall Novak, former writer and star of
The Office, debuted the first season of his anthology television series called The Premise, where each episode tells a single character-driven story about a current world issue. Vengeance feels like an extended episode of that bizarre series, exploring big concepts and the complexities of human nature in a story that defines itself on those merits, and not much more.

I should also mention that Vengeance is B.J. Novak’s directorial debut, but his television experience means that he is a capable force both in front of and behind the camera. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film’s premise is its most intriguing facet, fashioning Novak himself as a podcast journalist — an unholy combination of two very noble professions — named Ben Manalowitz, a typical snobby Brookynite who is trying to find the “next big thing” to impress his boss, Eloise (Insecure’s Issa Rae). One night, Ben receives a call from a stranger, summoning him to Texas for the funeral of a girl he hooked up with in the past. Upon his arrival, he’s greeted by the deceased woman’s brother, Ty (exquisitely played by Logan’s Boyd Holbrook), who believes that his sister was murdered.

I doubt something like this has actually happened to B.J. Novak, but it still feels like a personal story, one that he’s been wanting to tell — if not for the plot, then for the message. I’ll be completely transparent and admit that I didn’t like The Premise, but that’s what B.J. Novak seems to be good at: creating scenarios that are so strange and weirdly alluring (while also being tangentially realistic), so as to draw in an audience for the actual story to unfold.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Of course I’m only joking about my feelings towards podcasters and journalists — I have experience as both — but
Vengeance takes a cynical attitude towards their intentions that I can’t help but take note of. Though he eventually agrees to investigate the death, his aim at first is selfish, using the small Texas town and its people as a punchline, accentuating the lies that people tell themselves to fill a void. In fact, the first time we meet Ben, he’s waxing philosophical with John Mayer on a New York rooftop, exchanging pithy one-liners and reducing women to defining location characteristics and broad concepts (e.g. “Amber Gym,” “Maura Airplane Bathroom”), calling into question whether the depiction of these stereotypes is meant to be satirically critical or cluelessly parodic.

Speaking of, some of Novak’s dialogue is a little heady, but I generally enjoyed these large discussions; it isn’t often you get something of that caliber in a comedy. Most of the jokes land, and it’s a decent murder mystery, which is the difficult hurdle that many people who make horror/comedies often forget about. It’s wild to be able to describe Vengeance as “a B.J. Novak movie,” considering that this is his first, but it echoes so much of his previous work that I can feel confident saying that this is his signature style. Whether he chooses to keep doing this is up to him, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Vengeance opens in theaters July 29.

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