Universal Pictures | June 10, 2022 | 146 Mins. | Action, Sci-Fi, Adventure
VENGEANCE (2022) l Focus Features | Release Date: July 29, 2022 | 107 Mins
Journalist and podcaster Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with.
REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
Vengeance is a great feature film directorial and writing debut from B.J. Novak due to its excellent social commentary, even if the film loses its spark in a rushed final act.
Everyone knows B.J. Novak from The Office, or if you’re like and are not a huge fan of The Office, recognize him as Robert Sherman from Saving Mr. Banks. Novak is a talented comedian, and has written and directed for both The Office and The Mindy Project. But Vengeance sees Novak for the first time creating something that is entirely his own and guides it all the way through to the finished film.
The film follows Novak’s Ben, a single man who prefers sleeping around, that finds himself at a funeral of Abilene, a girl he had hooked up with a few times, as her family is convinced they were a couple. But when Abilene’s brother tells Ben of his suspicions that his sister was murdered, Ben uses this as an opportunity to create a true crime podcast to investigate whether Abilene was in fact murdered in hopes of becoming a famous podcaster. What ensues is a comical and insightful look at modern society, Texas, and relationships, with the backdrop of a murder mystery.
From a writing standpoint, the ideas that Novak plays with are brilliant! The analysis of modern culture in regards to fame and how that has become what we used to refer to as the American Dream is fascinating. The commentary on modern dating and how we form relationships with each other is accurate, shining a light on how we have gone from wanting to build relationships to merely just satisfying our own needs. All this commentary is channeled through the character of Ben, who unfortunately has all of the negative aspects of modern society that Novak is shining a light on. Compared to Abilene’s nutty Texan family, though they serve as comedic relief for the majority of the film, represent an ideal that has been lost: connectedness and family. They are quirky and outrageous, but Abeline’s family brings an insane amount of heart to the film that not only transforms our main character’s opinion, but helps pull the audience into the story.
While the murder investigation is the focus of the film, it is not the only focus of the first two act where Novak’s commentary has an equal amount of screentime. But, in the third act the mruder investigation takes centre stage, as does Novak’s slightly unlikable character. It’s a rushed act that attempts to tie up the film in approximately twenty minutes and becomes a cluttered mess. There are too many twists and turns to an otherwise straightforward story in the final act, that it feels like you are being bombarded with plot developments to quickly wrap up the film rather than giving the film an extra ten minutes to allow the story to progress more naturally. It’s not fatal to the film even though I was checking my watch, but it's an issue that a more experienced writer and director would have noticed and given the film the time it needed to avoid this issue.
As for Novak’s performance, he is fine, playing largely a character that is reminiscent of characters he has been typecast as in the past. Fans of his will enjoy his performance, but it does not give him any great material to work with to push himself as an actor. It’s the film’s supporting cast who make the largest impression on the film. Whether it be Issa Rae’s hilarious portrayal of Ben’s producer Eloise, Boyd Holbrook’s laughable yet endearing Ty, or Dove Cameron’s slightly inappropriate and sassy Kansas, the supporting cast are bursting with life and energy in every scene. Even if their characters are slightly hard to swallow at times, the supporting cast create the heart of the film as they portray characters who are real people full of flaws and strengths, unlike Novak’s Ben who is just used as an example of what Novak thinks is wrong with society today.
While it’s sure to fly under the radar for most audiences, B.J. Novak’s directorial film debut Vengeance is a strong first film showing Novak’s talents as a writer and director with a sharp view on society to deliver and a truly enjoyable supporting cast.