Vengeance Review: BJ Novak’s Smart Yet Sometimes Bland Debut Film

You may know BJ Novak as Ryan Howard in The office or for his brief roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After all his success, he is ready to make his mark in many ways with his feature directorial debut. Novak writes, directs and stars Revenge. In this dark comedy thriller, he portrays Ben Manalowitz, a journalist and podcaster who travels from New York City to Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was dating. This is an original, fascinating concept with some thoughtful messages packed into a film that ultimately doesn’t have the staying power it could have.

If you’ve seen Novak’s work on TV, you know his style: biting, wry humor mixed with a heart at the center of it all. The opening sequence features a lot of that, with Ben having a humorous conversation with a friend on a Brooklyn rooftop. As he tries to get his podcast off the ground, we get a look at his hookup lifestyle through a few funny moments before he gets a call in the night. Ty Shaw’s (Boyd Holbrook) broken voice sobs through the phone and invites Ben to his late sister’s funeral, believing Ben to be her boyfriend.

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A series of misunderstandings make Ben a fish out of water when he arrives in West Texas. Ty suspects that his sister was murdered and he wants Ben’s help to get to the bottom of it. Ben seizes the opportunity to write a story about self-deception in the face of grief, and thus we have our film. The writing is sharp throughout much of the film, with Novak’s signature humor shining through in awkward situations that Ben tries to talk his way out of. What holds the film back is how the comedy is more likely to make you laugh rather than laugh out loud.

Much of the humor in this film comes from the cultural differences between the characters. Despite its American setting, a New York journalist finds himself in a Southern culture quite different from his own. Instead of humiliating the South for all its stereotypes, Novak writes a comically terrifying scenario in which Ben finds himself in the middle of gun lovers, passionate sports fans and Whataburger. The divide between Texas cities is written for comedic effect, and there’s a lot for Texas residents in particular to get a kick out of.

The film also has a fun cast of supporting characters. Ben is introduced to the Shaw family, who play Ben out in hilarious ways. The relationship between Ben and Ty’s younger brother leads to some very heartfelt moments. Novak knew how to build the relationship between Ben and the family without slipping into cliched sentimental territory. The result works well despite Revenge emotionally empty at times.

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Ashton Kutcher appears in his first film since 2014 in a supporting role as Quinten Sellers. He shines in the few scenes he is in and commits to the mysterious character. Holbrook gets a chance to show off his comedic chops in his role, as does much of the supporting cast. However, Novak has the most on his plate, juggling directing and portraying the lead at the same time, and he does an excellent job with both. However, we have seen much stronger directorial debuts from filmmakers. Novak does little to set itself apart from the rest with a story that lacks the emotional power it could have had.

Also, the film’s final five minutes take a trip down a darker, unexpected route that doesn’t feel deserved for the main character. The mystery isn’t as investing as it could have been, and the comedy isn’t as strong as Novak’s other work. However, Revenge ultimately, the story you want to see provides a lot of commentary on American culture and human nature. This movie has a lot to say about our perception of things and how our biases distort how we feel. The result is a little more mixed than it could have been, but it ultimately works as a smart, decently written debut from Novak.

SCORE: 6/10

Like ComingSoon’s audit policy explains, a score of 6 corresponds to “Decent”. It fails to reach its full potential and is a thorough experience.

Disclosure: The critic attended a press screening for ComingSoon’s Revenge review.

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