I’ve never really thought of B.J. Novak as one of our better actors. In fact, I don’t think about Novak much at all. Unless, of course, I’m recalling The Office and his douchnozzle character, Ryan. A show on which he was also a writer and producer. So, despite me not really clocking him as a great thespian, he’s clearly a talented dude. However, he is a novice when it comes to film directing. Which certainly shows around the edges of Vengeance. As does his writing of an entire movie with a more complex plot than your typical sitcom episode. It has its high points in terms of its social commentary on the blue/red divide. But it also has its dodgy sections in terms of its art.
That said, Novak does what Novak does: he plays a kind of insufferable douche. Granted, he’s a bit over-the-top as Ben Manalowitz, a stereotypical Northeastern… globalist? Which, as a chosen person with a Harvard degree under his belt kind of fits Novak to a T. So, yes, there is a bit of self-parody going on here. But, anyway, Ben is your typical blue-state journalist type who consistently hits up the dating apps, listens to NPR and probably looooves avocado toast. His bubble is small, but mighty. And I’m going to stop right here for a sec. Novak was born in 1979. That puts him squarely in the Gen X bucket. Granted, he’s a little on the periphery, but he is still a 43-year-old man. Though the film paints him as someone much younger. His proclivities and the woman whose death he ultimately goes to report on makes it feel like his character should have been played by a person at least a decade his junior. This, of course, could just be the fact that Novak wrote and directed this thing and felt he was the best person for the part — age be damned. But something hit wrong seeing this clearly forty-something play the obviously clueless, target millenial.
Well, Ben gets a call from Texas. A state with which he clearly has no connection or background. Nope, he’s an asshead East Coast guy who thinks the whole place is steers and beers. Turns out some girl he dated a couple times overdosed, and her family is under the impression that the two of them were a serious item. Ben is at first confused and put off, but decides in his confident douchiness that this whole thing would make for an awesome story about some cloying thing about class and opiates and blah, blah, blah. The idea is intentionally pretentious, of course. Because this film is, at its core, a satire. So he flies to Texas, meets up with the dead girl’s brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), and is immediately pitched a conspiracy theory that the girl didn’t, in fact, die of a drug overdose, but was murdered! Man, this would, in fact, make an awesome podcast! Or so Ben thinks.
The family takes Ben in and treats him like one of their own. They think, after all, that their girl was on the verge of marrying this stranger. Which seems weird, right? Such a movie trope. And Ben takes advantage of it to get closer to the family in order to get to the bottom of this story. Not because he cared about her or the family, but because this pretentious, altruistic story of class struggle or whatever has now turned into what he imagines is a true crime murder mystery. The most popular podcast format of them all! Thing is — and this too is extremely formulaic — the more time he spends with these people, the more he starts to see them as lovely human beings. Not the yokels he assumed they’d be. Not the backwards, gun-loving rednecks he initially thought they were. No, they are warm and inviting and treat him — the East Coast elite globalist — as one of their own. Which is exactly what happens in every film ever.
But even with all of this there are some bad gun jokes. And some dumb shit about being fans of Texas versus Texas Tech that engenders violence. And rodeos. I think. In other words, even Novak can’t seem to avoid taking shots at the red staters. Even while trying to say there are good people on both sides. This kind of stupidity seems to undermine some good things in the movie, however. The “twist” at the end of act two is actually a decent one. Holbrook is really great as the enthusiastic and loving brother. He kind of jumps off the screen. This kind of twist thing is not only surprising in an emotional way, but also kind of gets at a deeper thought experiment about why people believe and perpetuate conspiracies. Why they vote and speak out against their own self-interest. Why they act as if they’re in the dark about things that may seem obvious to others. Because, often, the truth is just too hard to face. Too hard to admit. And too hard to live with.
And then we get to the end of the film. This movie that is ostensibly a dark-ish comedy. That all-of-a-sudden becomes a Scorsese film. Or a Lynch film. Or something so dark and not-at-all comedic. It’s jarring in an incredibly unpleasant and unrealistic way. Like beyond unrealistic. Soooo unrealistic that I literally paused the thing and WTF’ed out loud. Two people whose personalities seemed to have been lifted out of another, much darker and violent film grafted onto two of our leads. So very odd. And not at all what I wanted out of this thing. And, look, I didn’t need it to be Sweet Home Alabama or something, but I didn’t need it to go all 1990s serious indie film on me either.
Ultimately I know what B.J. was going for here. Or maybe I don’t, really. But while this is a serviceable first attempt, I had trouble getting past some of the janky quirks that felt too much like a one-line concept: “Out-of-touch podcaster goes to Texas for shits and giggles, comes back enlightened about how the other half lives” and not enough like a contemplation on why this shithead felt like this to begin with. It’s not as if he went to investigate aliens, for god’s sake. And for a dude who is supposed to be worldly, he doesn’t know anything about anything. Like literally doesn’t know about the Alamo? That seems not at all realistic. It’s dumb is what it is. But I’ll give the dude credit for the try, and will certainly check out his next project just to see what kind of young 30-something assface he thinks he can play at 47.