With the release of his first feature “Vengeance,” a comedy-thriller filmed in New Mexico and Texas, B.J. Novak got the rural Southwest right. “Vengeance” is a passable yet promising first feature, showing a smart eye for dialogue, character and story that should only improve as the writer/director/actor continues his career.
“Vengeance” follows shallow New Yorker Ben Manalowitz (Novak) as he attempts to turn the death of a former hookup into the next hit true crime podcast, following her family in their quest for vengeance in what seems like an open-and-shut case. In the process, he bonds with the family and Texas itself.
The family of the deceased are classic Texas stereotypes — thinking revenge is best found at the end of a gun, walls lined with live-laugh-love, the coded “bless your hearts” — and the film doesn’t let them off the hook for it. However, it treats Novak’s self-insert Manalowitz the same way. The film highlights the similarities in the subjects, but never comes across as an afterschool special, focusing on the regret we live with rather than any lofty message of us all being the same.
However, like Novak’s work on “The Office” as a writer, director, actor and producer, “Vengeance” suffers from an overabundance of contrivances, specifically in the plot and overwritten dialogue — though audience buy-in to the conceits of the story is necessary, there are plenty of moments and lines that feel unearned and overly telegraphed.
One example comes near the climax of the film in where the victim’s tendency to shorten phrases into numeric codes to her family gives way to her phone passcode, which ultimately holds the answers to every question in the case. This decision doesn’t feel like it comes from the character, but rather a filmmaker desperate for a conclusion. Moments like this permeate the film and steal credibility from the nuance Novak tries to present.
Still, the dialogue and plot are smart and captivating, specifically in the second and third acts. Once Manalowitz arrives in Texas for the funeral, the film’s humor had me, though the opening with Manalowitz comparing his immature perspectives on love with John Mayer dragged and made the film seem like it would tread stale territory that it mostly avoided, or discussed with greater depth than expected.
In terms of performances, the stand-out work comes from Ashton Kutcher as enigmatic music producer Quentin Sellers. In the comedy-thriller, Kutcher takes a serious role and approaches his character's beliefs with the total conviction required to sell it. Though his story is predictable, Kutcher’s charisma as Sellers magnetizes each scene he’s in, showcasing the former sitcom actor’s strong dramatic chops.
The other performances, unfortunately, vary in quality. Novak, who excels in the writing and directing, suffers in the leading role when he’s not playing the straight man to the Shaw family and other local denizens. J. Smith Cameron, who plays the deceased's mother, offers up plenty of heart, especially in the climax and denouement, but plays the stereotype more straightforward than any other actor in the movie, which is disappointing given her skill on “Succession.”
The most promising aspect of the film was the strong sense of visual storytelling and identity, clear in the wide shots of beautiful Texas sky, but also present in the costuming and composition of certain scenes, such as when Manalowitz has his first and final conversations with Sellers. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief and Novak painted a picture of Texas sure to ring true to both locals and outsiders: beautiful but realistic, fluorescent and flat at times.
A safe yet thought-provoking movie, “Vengeance” is worth watching for this portrait, which presents Texas and its people as wide and varied as they are, beyond the caricature they seem. The film opens nationwide July 29.
Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @spenserwillden