PPositioning himself as the satirist we want and need right now, former actor and desktop writer BJ Novak certainly deserves points for his chutzpah. And while it deserved points for very little else in its failed anthology series The Premise, there’s a bit more to recommend in the murky new comedy thriller Vengeance, flashes of. Something this allusion to a future project where the final product looks more like what he sees on paper.
For us, it’s a stopgap until it gets there, an ambitious but over-the-top attempt to tackle an exhaustive and pressing list of various slices of Americana, from true-crime podcasts to elites to gun control, to opioid addiction, to the cult of celebrity. Culture. It’s not as scattered as his aforementioned show, but one still wishes he had thrown in something to lighten the load, a weighty film that never quite sinks but just keeps its head above water. It’s a debut movie and it sure feels like it, the work of someone desperate to show us both the sizzle reel and the mission statement, but the lens is too high and so the result is less “here’s what I can do” and more “here’s what I shouldn’t try to do”.
Novak plays an obnoxious New York journalist named Ben, shown in the first scene drinking on the roof of Dumbo House with his equally obnoxious friend, played by singer John Mayer. In an all-too-obvious decorator, the pair share wild, self-assured observations about life, agreeing on everything (“100%,” they keep chanting), an early sign that Novak prefers a hammer to his face when a pat on the shoulder would do. He then pitches a podcast to a nearby producer (Issa Rae) who tells him he needs to be less thesis, more story and less head, more heart (advice that Novak himself would be smart to to hold onto).
His search for something more substantial coincides with a strange call: his girlfriend is dead. Except he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Instead, the brother of a woman he has met a few times feels like they were more committed than they were and so he finds himself, with ill-justified reasoning, travel to a small town in Texas to attend the funeral and meet his family. He then has an idea, maybe trying to find out how she died could be the podcast pitch he was looking for.
It’s a bells-and-whistles update of the classic comedy “cold-hearted townsman is first rebuffed but ultimately charmed by the small town he’s stuck in,” Doc Hollywood joked on Twitter. Novak, the Harvard-educated son of a famous memoir author, is hyper-aware of how someone like him could easily write a condescending, unattached version of this story and so goes to great lengths to subvert expectations. . The locals (including Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, Succession’s J Smith-Cameron, and funny-but-underutilized Disney star Dove Cameron) aren’t the simplistic rednecks his character thinks they’ll be (they know what it’s like). Raya!) and so we learn exercise to avoid hasty judgments. But these lessons are not as surprising and refreshing as he seems to think. Updating an age-old fish out of water like this with the internet as an obvious influence immediately makes the world much smaller and Novak’s character explaining what a writer does and what a magazine is pushing culture shock in caricatural territory. As it transitions from comedy to thriller, with a rather mundane crime plot taking center stage, I’m not sure if Novak knows what he means with a movie that clearly and desperately wants to say something.
Considering the brutal boot camp formation that has been going on in a networked sitcom writers room for many years, it’s no surprise that Novak’s dialogue has a crisp effectiveness and there’s enough funny moments to make you wish he’d lower his sight a bit and try to do something that’s more situational comedy and less satire of the moment. As a director he’s mostly anonymous and as an actor he’s rather apathetic, coming off as the lead when he doesn’t quite have the natural charisma or, as things get more heavy, dramatic chops for it.
When an undeniably talented writer-director throws so much at the wall, it’s inevitable that elements will stick and in Vengeance there’s just about enough to make us curious to see what happens when Novak learns to tighten his focus. . Vengeance is less the movie we need right now and more the movie it thinks we’re making, but hopefully next time it figures out how to do something we want instead.