In his role as a philosophical, small-town record producer, Ashton Kutcher embarks on a three-minute soliloquy, questioning the beginning of the universe, and what it really means to record ourselves in the first place. Inspired, the listener, a teenage country singer, gets ready to lay down her vocals. Her first line? “I finished my shift at Claire’s."
Welcome to Vengeance. The directorial debut from The Office alum B.J. Novak (who also wrote) is an exploration of, well, everything. It’s legitimately funny, surprisingly profound, and deeply conflicted over whether it believes any of what it's saying, and whether you should either.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, an accomplished and especially annoying New York City writer seeking some deep truth about the human experience and doing absolutely nothing to actually find it. We meet him at a rooftop party talking with an uncredited John Mayer as a good-looking douchebag (really playing against type there) about how they’re actually achieving a higher level of human connection by sleeping with a different woman every night.
One of these hookups leads to a phone call, in which Ben is informed that one of his hookups has died, and she took their relationship far more seriously than he did. Thus, he ends up on a flight to West Texas, bullshitting his way through a funeral speech to family members who think he was a long-term boyfriend. Shortly after, that same family, primarily dim-witted brother Ty, played by Boyd Holbrook, informs him that they believe she was murdered, and they want his help to avenge her.Ben doesn’t know how to do vengeance in its classic sense, so he decides to wage war via podcast, believing he’s found his true American story, one that will accurately capture the state of the Western world (and it has a dead white girl, so it will sell). Of course, the story turns out to be more than it seems, and we get a murder mystery, conspiracy theories, and a web of strange characters, all against the backdrop of burned-out oil fields.
There are a lot of inside-baseball jokes early on about insufferable New York media types. Ben saves someone in his phone contacts as “Random House Party” and can't figure out if he just met her at some house party or if it was at an event thrown by the book publisher. Minutes later, a hookup wears one of his shirts, a bit of Pod Save America merch.
All of this could fall completely flat, but Novak, from his days on The Office until now, has understood how to capture a character whose coolness comes from the people they spend time around. Here he nails a person trying so hard to be somebody that his string of shallow, opportunistic relationships makes him little more than a spectator to the lives of others.
If this all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. It's the biggest shortcoming of Vengeance as well as its biggest strength. The film feels like Novak burning through years of pent-up storylines and thematic threads in a two-hour movie; he has all the right ideas, but your head starts to spin at how fast he burns through them.
Everyone does a great job here, from Novak to Kutcher, who delivers a charmingly malevolent performance, to J. Smith Cameron leveraging her Succession fame into great supporting roles, to Issa Rae, killing every scene she’s in as a podcast producer with her finger on the pulse.
It's never bad, and often genuinely great, especially for a debut film. Novak finds something in modern culture that has been elusive to so many other directors; he is disgusted by the detachment that comes as a result of our constant online-ness, but also truly believes in modern media and using it to explore larger truths about ourselves. He’s playing with something really impressive, and does so with a deft hand and a sharp sense of humor; it’s just a shame he has too many thoughts to contain in one movie.
Vengeance is now playing in theaters nationwide. focusfeatures.com/vengeance