Authenticity is a hard thing to acquire with your directorial debut. With “Vengeance,” B.J. Novak (known to most humans for his character on the American version of “The Office”) puts forth a great effort in trying to attain that rare accomplishment with his first feature film. (Did you know he directed five episodes of the Steve Carell-led comedy series?)
Finding things out that you may have known or not known at all is one of the treats located inside Novak’s script, which also sees him cast in the lead role of Ben Manolowitz. An aspiring podcaster in New York, we first meet Ben at a fancy party atop a high rise in the Big Apple. The Freedom Tower is becoming more and more of a N.Y. label on film and television, but Novak’s goal with this start is a character-building measure. The plot will come soon enough, but the writer-director’s finest decision here is packing Ben with all kinds of quirks, hot takes, and that ambitious and nervous energy that either inspires you or puts you off.
Joining Ben’s live wire monologue on everything from dating to women to life’s meaning is shared with his friend, played by the one and only John Mayer. If you haven’t gotten a peak at the gifted singer-songwriter’s dry sense of humor, you’re in for a nice appetizer in “Vengeance,” a movie that sounds like a Liam Neeson/Gerald Butler road movie but actually goes deeper. But first, Mayer gets to unleash a side of himself that probably doesn’t get much more than a cameo at his concerts. In a rapid fire Mamet-type back and forth between the two actors, Novak and Mayer create an energy by burning through the misconceptions of life and careers, and their respective sex lives.
This is where Mayer gets to have some fun with his real life persona, having dated at least three well-known actresses and musicians. In one instance, the two talk about settling down eventually. While Ben says he’d like one woman to be with, Mayer’s pal is more practical by trimming it from seven at a time to two or three. That’s the first scene of a fast-moving dark comedy that plays to its strengths.
In the case of “Vengeance,” it’s character richness. The plot doesn’t exactly sprint but does intrigue enough, even if it is a tad too much on the timely nose. A woman that Ben had a hot moment or two with in Texas suddenly dies of a suspected drug overdose. When the late Abilene Shaw’s brother, Ty (a wonderful Boyd Holbrook) hints to Ben that there could be more to Abilene’s demise than mere drugs, Ben has the perfect flame lit underneath him for a podcast idea: What happened to Abilene?
The good thing is “Vengeance” never takes itself too seriously, which allows its slow-burning take on the Opioid epidemic to sneak up and floor you from time to time. As Ben descends into Columbo with a really good microphone, he meets and starts to fall harder for Abilene’s family more than he ever did for the late lady herself. Fans of HBO’s “Succession” will adore J. Smith Cameron’s turn as Abilene’s mother and the patriarch and matriarch of the family. She is sweeter here than she is as Gerri on the superb television drama, but there’s still a potent willpower to her Sharon.
Texas, or a really small town somewhere inside of it, gets to show off its willpower as well. The juice in Novak’s script isn’t a new age detective whodunit, but the misconceptions that people outside of Texas make about the largest state in the country. The way people act, talk, behave, speak, and any other cliched depiction is fit for a cowboy hat. Ben represents all of those people as he tackles the case in a place where he has no friends or family, at least not at first.
The heart in “Vengeance” is what helps pull it together. A talkative yet quietly profound script that asks all the right questions, ruminations (my new favorite word, thanks Tracy Letts) that will push the tough buttons for people in the audience. While Novak gives a nice performance as our protagonist-he’s a wiry Ben Stiller with lightsaber eyes-it’s Ashton Kutcher’s local record producer who steals the show here. In a series of monologues fit for Michael Fassbender or Armie Hammer from four years ago, Kutcher nails the role of Quentin Sellers. Like everyone not related to Abilene here, he’s not someone who can be totally trusted, but he sure does make every riddle in the world sound provocative.
It’s a tough role that he does very well with. Novak’s script is the quiet maverick in “Vengeance,” a film that handles a tender subject with grace and nobility. It’s not a war against drugs. There aren’t enough people back against opioids for it to be a war. It’s more like a one-sided asskicking, with more Americans being destroyed by it than the amount lost in Vietnam. Young people, teenagers, are dropping like flies and in a naive yet nimble way, Novak cuts to the heart of that tale with an indie mystery comedy with just enough darkness. Thankfully, he doesn’t pretend to have answers, only searching for cold revenge–or its double-edged sibling, “Vengeance.”
A big hat tip to Issa Rae for putting a spark in the role of Ben’s boss, the one being blown away by the unfolding mystery, which gets interesting every ten minutes. You’ll be looking up Isabella Amara and Eli Bickel, who play the younger siblings of Abilene. Like Rae, they take overwritten roles and make them feel lived-in.
A lot of things aren’t what they seem in life, including small, desolate towns in Texas. What B.J. Novak proves that becoming a filmmaker opens up a whole new bag of tricks for an actor. Forget “The Office,” this is his new calling card now. “Vengeance” should be yours this weekend. Novak pulled it off, achieving authenticity with his first movie. I will be in the theater seat for the next one from his head.