I truly didn’t know what to expect from Vengeance, a feature written, directed, and starring BJ Novak from The Office, and produced by Jason Blum. I was ignorant of Novak’s post-The Office career, and how that might mix with the producer of Get Out, The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and a million other horror movies and thrillers was an even bigger mystery. Vengeance (whose generic title is the worst thing about it) turned out to be not just a surprising mix, but a winning one that was almost eerily up my alley.
Novak plays Ben Manalowtiz, a New York City journalist-type who seems to have a preternatural (or maybe just pathological) ability to instantly turn any life event into a story pitch. He surrounds himself with guys roughly just like him, and can barely finish experiencing a thing before he’s pontificating about its societal implications. It’s like Ben’s always planning his This American Life third act, complete with pun title.
Best known for having played entitled f*ckboi Ryan on The Office, Ben is another “annoying guy you meet at cocktail parties” who Novak plays with aplomb. In both cases the character doesn’t seem too far removed from Novak himself — a Harvard alum from a family of intellectuals — making Novak’s evisceration of them both comedically canny (write what you know, and so forth) and charmingly un-vain. It’s like Novak anticipates his own public perception and wants to beat anyone else to the jokes.
When one of Ben’s old hookups turns up dead, he can barely remember her name, but in his invite to her funeral from her kooky West Texas family, Ben instantly senses an opportunity for his very own career-invigorating first-person true crime series in the vein of Serial. He pitches it to his long-suffering editor, played by the great Issa Rae from Insecure, who counsels Ben to maybe try looking inward a little more than usual, but otherwise gives him the green light.
In his ex’s unnamed West Texas town (“is that near Austin? I’ve been to Austin for South by,” Ben asks) Ben meets his ex’s brother, played by Boyd Holbrook from Narcos, and her whole extended family, who all think he was her boyfriend. Ben thinks he has gold on his hands — a combination of true crime and one of those Red State zoo tours New York journalists were so often taking during the Trump era.
The Vengeance setup is obvious: essentially Doc Hollywood, but with a wannabe Ira Glass as the protagonist. Yet Blum and Novak are always turning the dial, forcing it to develop and transform briskly enough that Vengeance never has a chance to crystallize into anything expected. Boyd Holbrook, who could’ve easily just been a sight gag, as Novak’s perfect goy foil, steals most of his scenes, and gets some of Vengeance‘s best lines. He might actually be better at comedy.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with NPR for as long as I can remember, not being able to resist its content thanks to being a professional intellectual with too much liberal arts education, but also constantly infuriated by its sexlessness, its blinkered urbanity, its hopeless, inescapable, pathological NPRiness. Novak’s script for Vengeance clearly seems to have grown out of some of the same sentiment, displaying a thorough familiarity with the intellectual pod world’s characters and tropes, making the comedy that much sharper. At one point, one of Ben’s hookups wears a Pod Save America shirt. The voice of Ben’s podcast network CEO, whose face we never see, is played by long-time voice of Fresh Air Terry Gross.
Vengeance would be enjoyable enough for its ability to send up this world alone, a rich vein of comedy left largely untapped on film before this. But what makes it a movie, and not just a decent sketch stretched out, is that it continues to evolve. When Ashton Kutcher shows up as Ben’s ex’s eccentric music producer, Ben expects to find some dumb hick he can make fun of. He gets instead a sort of prairie svengali, whose media critiques are even sharper than Ben’s (and that much more obnoxious coming from someone as obnoxiously handsome as Ashton Kutcher, who reveals hidden depths in this role).
One of Kutcher’s takes is that we’re disconnected these days not by politics or wealth or geography, but by time. People reach out to you and you get back to them on your own schedule. You listen to music or podcasts or watch shows whenever you can fit them in, while real life happens around you, with no one ever experiencing the same things as other people simultaneously in real-time. We treat everyone like just another character in our stories (message!).
Vengeance may have a sort of old-fashioned setup, but its takes are razor sharp, such that when the comedy starts to turn earnest, and the story begins to evolve from fish-out-of-water comedy into more straight-up potboiler (Jason Blum having produced it and whatnot), it doesn’t feel like an apology or a digression. It feels like a deepening of themes; yet another layer revealed in a film that packs an impressive number of them into 107 minutes.