Directed by: B.J. Novak
Distributed by: Focus Features
Written by Taylor Baker
Novak best known for playing Ryan in “The Office,” follows his 2021 anthology television series “The Premise” up with “Vengeance.” A wilted directorial debut that looks at America from one selfish man’s eyes as he journeys from New York to Texas to attend the funeral of a fling he slept with a couple of times. Novak is essentially regurgitating the formula he used to make Ryan one of “The Office’s” most memorable characters. It’s again grating, has a weird tonality of earnestness underscoring its insincerity and is built around a gimmick.
Novak’s character Ben Manalowitz is a mid-tier journalist who desperately wants to become noteworthy. So he seizes the opportunity to repurpose his trip to Texas into a podcast investigating the death of Abeline, the aforementioned fling. The need to record audio for this project doesn’t lead to meaningful introspection, unique cinematic audio, or even strong dialogue. Instead, Novak uses it as a vector of observance into the coldness and distance of life we each have from the individuals that make up our community. It’s an understandable sentimentality to pursue, and when achieved it certainly has merit. But “Vengeance” fails to create such an emotional introspective point. The project after all is written, directed, produced, and led by someone whose predominant and most successful character trait as a performer is best defined as insincerity. According to Novak himself, “Vengeance” is based on a daydream he had about an ex-girlfriend while he was looking at her Instagram. If that doesn’t succinctly explain the underlying insincerity of Novak as a storyteller I don’t know what will.
The film’s visuals are competently composed though its veneer seems too flashy and its towns too thin. The supporting cast includes Ashton Kutcher, J. Smith-Cameron, and Boyd Holbrook. Each offer some significance and semblance of believability to the world Novak is asking us to believe in. But between the self-serving finale, poorly executed emotional awakening, and general unbelievability of the film as a whole and especially Novak’s Ben; “Vengeance” reads as little more than a narcissist throwing his screenplay through the industry meat grinder to put something on the big screen courtesy of the relationships he’s fostered over the last two decades.
“Vengeance” is in wide theatrical release.