Like many others, I was first introduced to B.J. Novak from TV’s The Office playing the role of Ryan Bailey Howard. What I didn’t know was just how involved he was with the TV series having written and directed numerous episodes. He is one of the reasons that made the show great, at least before Steve Carell left. He also serves as writer, actor and director with the black comedy Vengeance which is (mostly) smartly written.
While probably not intending to, Novak’s Vengeance is similar to the Sandra Bullock movie, While You Were Sleeping which also begins with a series of misunderstandings. In both films, the protagonist is set up to interact with a family that they do not know but have to pretend that they do. In Bullock’s movie, Sandra saves the life of a man she barely knew but pretends to be the man’s girlfriend because she doesn’t want to disappoint the man’s family while he is still in a coma. In Vengeance, the story is darker.
Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is a self-absorbed, podcaster who isn’t attached to any one woman, but goes out with many. To him, they are little more than play things. However, one night he is awoken by a caller claiming to be the brother of his girlfriend. As it turns out, Abilene has been found dead in a West Texas oil field. While trying to figure out who this woman was while not wanting to upset her brother, Ben pretends to be in shock and before he knows it, has committed himself to attend Abilene’s funeral. While he still struggles to really remember this girl, he learns that Abilene has told her eccentric family all about him and it soon becomes clear that she was crazy about him.
Before heading back home, Abilene’s older brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook) reveals that he believes that his little sister has been murdered and is hoping that Ben will help him avenge her death. Not even owning a gun, Ben refuses but instead, offers to help solve the murder while telling his producer back home (Issa Rae) his idea for a new, true-crime podcast.
While in town, Ben gets to known Abilene’s family better including her younger sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron) who want to become famous someday like their country singer sister who was mentored by record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Her younger brother, whom Ty calls El Stupido (Eli Bickel), is probably the smartest one in the bunch. Her mother is sweet and Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens) is a firecracker. (I don’t remember if they ever said what happened to Abilene’s father.) For fun, the family loves to go to Whataburger, eat deep-friend Twinkies and attend the rodeo. It’s a simple life out in the middle of nowhere. As Ben’s character learns to let down his guard a bit, we get to see little larger range of acting from Novak. As for Abilene’s family, well, they are a page torn out of a book of southern stereotypes appearing to be simple-minded folk. I suspect that Texans in general will be torn whether they love or are embarrassed by these characters.
For at least half of the movie, Vengeance is more or less a sweet story about and a man learning to grieve over a woman that he didn’t know while falling in love with her family. He’s a city slicker who stands out like a sore thumb in the big state of Texas, but the longer he’s there, the more he realizes what a terrible person he is.
It’s easy to forget at times that this is movie about “myth, misunderstandings and murder.” But the movie takes a tonal shift toward a darker storyline right after a trip to Whataburger as Ben uncovers more about Abilene’s death. As more clues are uncovered, it becomes clear that Ben’s life is also in danger. Then the film waxes eloquently with folksy sayings about life and the foibles of man. It’s a little too long for my liking and would have preferred a little more editing. While I agree that the surprising conclusion will make you think, the ending isn’t as satisfying as I would have hoped for. Maybe that’s the point.
Main image: B.J. Novak and Boyd Holbrook. (Patti Perret / Focus Features)
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.