'Vengeance': A Sharp Satire That Bites Off a Little More Than It Can Chew
There is a moment early on in B.J. Novak's directorial debut, Vengeance, where our protagonist, Ben, (played by Novak, himself) is pitching his idea for a podcast. Ben is a journalist for The New Yorker, but he seeks to do something that will give him even more exposure. His idea is to make a podcast about America that explores the major divide in the country. In his pitch, he goes through a wide array of topics and themes that he wants to dive into. This pitch mirrors what Novak himself is wanting to accomplish with this film, as there are a myriad of ideas and statements that he wants to establish throughout. It's rather ambitious to make any type of media that seeks to explain the current state of America, given that there are many factors that have led us to where we are today. I have to applaud Novak's attempt to say as much as he is trying to say here, but the film does end up feeling overstuffed, and the overarching message that Novak is trying to convey feels a bit jumbled by the film's end.
The film begins at a rooftop party in New York, where Novak's character, Ben is having a conversation with a friend (played by John Mayer, of all people) that touches on various observations of life, hooking up, and our place in the world. Ben is wanting something bigger than what he has, which ends up coming to him in an unexpected way. In the middle of the night, he receives a call that a girl he was hooking up with named Abilene (played by Lio Tipton) has died. Unbeknownst to Ben, Abilene's family is under the impression that their relationship was more serious than it actually was. After being pressured by Abilene's brother, Ty (played by Boyd Holbrook), he travels from New York to West Texas to attend the funeral. When Ty suggests that Abilene was murdered, Ben decides to investigate her death and record everything for a podcast. Throughout the film, Ben tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Abilene, and ends up discovering some harsher truths about America in the process.
At its core, the film is about how self-absorbed our culture is, and how we have grown to become more and more reliant on our beliefs. These two make up the backbone of the whole film, and are the two most fully-formed ideas that Novak presents here. Everyone in the film is so confident that they are in the right, whether it be about Abilene's death, sociopolitical issues, or whether or not Whataburger is the best fast-food restaurant. The characters are constantly defending their beliefs throughout the film, and are rather unwavering when faced with opposing viewpoints. The selfishness of the characters is a bit off-putting, but ultimately serves Novak's overarching message nicely. This is most prominently seen in the character of Ben, whose narcissism is a driving force for him. It is part of why he gets into some of the situations he gets himself into, and it plays a major part in the film's shocking ending. So much of the film deals with how often we as humans want to be right and how we want to have some sort of fame or notoriety, and it gets these points across effectively.
However, the rest of the points that Novak tries to make are either unclear or feel bland. So much of the film feels stuck in the philosophy of the characters and the story being told, as opposed to any potential action or tension that the film lacks. This leads to a few moments feeling unearned or falling flat when they should have a bigger impact. It's as if Novak is so focused on what he is wanting to say that he neglected to make the actual narrative compelling. It's not that the film is boring by any stretch, but the stakes feel subdued, and the film kind of limps along with very little tension to drive the plot.
The film has assembled a great cast, but they largely feel squandered. J. Smith-Cameron gets a couple of great scenes, but she is mostly sidelined for the rest of the film. It's a largely thankless role, and it's sad that an actor of her caliber got saddled with it. Dove Cameron is also quite good, but the character is so thinly written that it undercuts this. Boyd Holbrook is given a little more to do, but I still feel like he could have been fleshed out a little more. He plays into the film's statement on our convictions so well, but the character feels held back a little.
The true MVP of the film is none other than Ashton Kutcher, who plays Quentin Sellers, a music producer who worked with Abilene. It's a true thermostat performance, as the entire temperature of the film changes when he is on screen. He has the right energy for the role, and his scenes are among the best of the film. He has several monologues throughout the film, in which he digs into the philosophical elements that Novak is exploring. I'm normally not a fan of monologue heavy scenes in film, but they are used so well here, and delivered excellently by Kutcher. He plays such a strange, mysterious character, which gives him a magnetic quality when he's on screen. It's easily one of the best performances of his career, and has me hoping that he will do more films in the future.
Of course, the film's most significant figure is B.J. Novak himself, as he wrote, directed, and starred in the film. The writing is the strongest of these three, which is unsurprising given that he has proven himself time and again to be particularly great in this domain. His work on The Office alone shows this, and also showcases his ability to explore rich themes with a satirical bent. He demonstrates this here, albeit on a larger scale, and even if it doesn't fully accomplish what he is going for, it does come awfully close. As for his acting, it's more or less what we've seen from him before. It's the same smug type of character he's played numerous times before, and didn't leave a huge impact on me. His direction is rather hit or miss, as certain moments really work, particularly the more comedic ones, but there are some first-time filmmaker mistakes he makes that were distracting. He's still figuring out a few things, but he does have serious potential to grow as a director..
I can't deny that B.J. Novak makes some solid points throughout Vengeance, but the film itself feels a bit tedious from time to time, and the overall message doesn't come across as clear as it could have. It does have some sharp observations and wit, but the narrative is a tad weak and doesn't fully support them. I don't think the film is quite as deep as it seems to think it is, but some of the ideas it poses are thought-provoking and left me with something to chew on at the very least. I appreciate the film's ambition, and I do like it for the most part, but it is rather disappointing considering how bland it ends up feeling. I suppose it could have been far worse, but it could have been far better, too.