B.J. Novak Steps out of The Office and into Texas for Dark Comedic Critique on Modern Life


Who needs a college dorm at 4 a.m. when we’ve got the filmmaking debut of one-time cast member of The Office turned feature film writer/director/leading man B.J. Novak?  With both, you’ll be subjected to lengthy existential diatribes about why everything is the way it is these days (you know, the big questions), but by selecting Novak’s new film Vengeance, you’d have the benefit of being out in well under two hours. 

If ever a movie screamed “first movie”, it’s this one.  Novak has clearly been amassing, ruminating, chewing on, hashing out, and cultivating his thoughts on, well, everything.  One can posit that he had a lot of time to think in between takes on The Office.  Then when the COVID-19 lockdown hit, he decided to make it all into a screenplay.  All of it.  And all the while, there’s a concerning metaphorical sound, but can’t be easily discerned.  Some can ignore it, though it’s the urgent sound that propels projects like this…

Novak plays Ben, a self-absorbed womanizing New York intellectual. John Mayer is on-and-gone in the film’s opening minutes as another self-absorbed womanizing New York intellectual.  They chat, and Ben walks away into what passes for yet another rooftop society party.  He later learns that one of his unremembered conquests has not only died, but her Texas-based family believe that he was her serious Big Apple boyfriend.  Uh, okay… In the same phone call, he also learns that the mourning family expects him to travel to their dusty corner of the state for the funeral.  Echoing the plot impetus of Dear Evan Hansen, Ben just can’t bring himself to shatter their mistaken notion.  So, he plays along.  All the way to the point where the deceased’s older brother (Boyd Holbrook), while giving Ben a lift in his loaded-rifle-racked big-ol’ pickup truck, assumes he’s game to go kill her killers with him.  Wait, what…?? 

First of all, even Ben understands that she likely died of a drug overdose and was not murdered.  Second of all, who would they be seeking vengeance against, anyway?  The whole scheme is half-baked… but wouldn’t this whole situation make for a great high-end podcast?  “Dead White Girl”… podcast gold.  He quickly gets the greenlight from his hyper-focused producer (real-life TV producer Issa Rae) and starts recording everything.  More talk ensues, and there was already plenty.  This is one of those movies; it may even be the talkiest talk movie ever made about a talky guy looking to talk for a living, always talking.  To Vengeance’s credit, Novak has a lot to say.  And, he says it.  He says it as though he may never have a platform like this again.  And besides, a Vengeance hits theaters, it’s summer and Texas is internally combusting.  What better time to take the idiosyncratic state to task?  (And to take the cast to Whataburger, which Vengeance happily stoops to blatantly promoting).

The deceased non-girlfriend’s large family occupy large swaths of the movie as Ben manages to land an extended stay in her old bedroom.  The house’s barrage of prefab wall hangings is entirely courtesy of Hobby Lobby’s “Christian Nationalist” decoration section.  But not the girl’s/Ben’s room.  That room is chock full of remnants of a human life lived, bygone girlhood and early grasps at grown-up identity.  Posters.  Stuffed animals.  Every Harry Potter book, stacked in order.  To Ben is it lingering fingerprints or merely clues for his story which he’s cast himself as the star of?  

Turns out she was an aspiring singer.  That leads Ben to a local philosophical space cowboy of a record producer played by Ashton Kutcher.  Kutcher, sporting the best and weirdest wardrobe in the movie, serves as something of a lit match in his two extended sequences even as his character often grates.  (By design or not?  Who can tell)?  With him comes yet more “truisms”, anecdotes, and observations that honestly could be shorter.  It’s enough to make a viewer ask, “Is this movie really a comedy?”

Along with notions of our collective foibles, particularly our fascination with electronically stockpiling moments and our ignorant forsaking of our cultural past and how all that affects our failure to “live in the moment” and blah blah blah blah, in walks the deceased’s little sister (Dove Cameron).  She shows Ben her cracked phone, saying “I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel”.  Um, that’s what Shirley MacLaine famously says of her cracked compact mirror in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.  Yet there’s no other overt reference to that film anywhere in Vengeance.  Nor are other famous movie lines weirdly appropriated.  Is this a subconscious coincidence or failed cleverness?  What gives, B.J. Novak?

Novak the filmmaker isn’t exactly word-bomb preaching here, but he’s also not at all the dialogue-savvy Quentin Tarantino-esque writer he’s trying to be.  Still, there are some rather great exchanges and dialogue throughout the film.  And politically speaking, he’s not exactly chasing tumbleweeds.  These are talks worth having.  Heck, Vengeance might just be the spark for many a 4 a.m. college dorm chat sessions.  Other movies have suffered far worse fates.

Many viewers will no doubt be moved to give this ultimately heavy-handed but somehow also muddled Lone Star movie a lone star rating, or less.  For me, while my love isn’t Vengeance (as The Who tells us, that’s never free), I, dang it, did not hate it.  Critique is so much easier when we simply hate the thing in question.  Maybe that’s why there’s so much hate in the world- it’s too easy.  While Novak now no doubt has a greater understanding of the challenges of nuanced critique, it must be said critique of his film would be a whole lot easier had I simply hated it.  But I can still see fit to do my small part to take it down, just a bit, from its insular high horse.  

And that sound?  It’s no podcast, it ain’t another order at Whataburger, and it’s not the din of high-minded chatter emanating from screen.  It’s the sound of America precariously rocking back and forth in a sad-clown rodeo of its own making.  Do we go kill it, or make a movie about it?