B.J. Novak’s debut feature film opens with the former star of “The Office” on a New York rooftop in vapid, existential conversation with musician John Mayer, playing a somewhat exaggerated version of himself.

The pair pontificate about having everything in life figured out and the ease of mindless dating women saved in their phones like “Random House Girl.” Then Novak’s Ben – a journalist and aspiring podcast host – talks to his producer about the division and unrest in America because of time.

It’s a sort of existentialism that one might expect from a Woody Allen film and the primary framing device of Novak’s Vengeance, a film that seeks to create a conversation about America by bringing elitist New Yorker Ben to the wild emptiness of West Texas, where the family of old fling Abby insists that he come to her funeral and help investigate her death they’re certain on “gut” was murder.

But it’s clear over the course of 90 minutes that Novak doesn’t learn the lessons that he hopes his protagonist – Novak writes, directs and plays the lead in Vengeance – will learn and his dark comedy, while funny and entertaining, misses the mark about what separates us politically and socially.

Much of the issues that hold Vengeance back from being an exceptional independent film come from the mixed tonality as Novak tries to make a crime thriller, a biting dark comedy and a richly cynical observation piece all at once.

These elements work in part but never coalesce into a complete film as it often feels like Novak is trying to do too much in front of the camera and not focusing on the bigger picture behind the camera.

As an actor, Novak excels at creating a character known for feigning mild interest in others to survive awkward moments and his Ben slowly progresses to admiration of this Texan family he befriends with relative believability. Some of the major leaps in logic and character development around Ben in the third act seem to be much more a result of the screenplay rather than his on-screen work.

The film’s humor largely comes from the actors portraying Abby’s family despite how one-dimensional they appear on the script page.

Boyd Holbrook shows some genuine emotion despite the rural naivety stereotype Vengeance often leans into as Abby’s older brother Ty; Louanne Stephens relishes in the moment having all the best one-liners as no-nonsense Granny Carole and Elli Abrams Bickel brings the most heart in the entire film as the younger brother nicknamed “El Stupido,” completely overcoming a somewhat insulting depiction with innocence and charm.

Among the more famous cast members, Issa Rae is well suited to be Ben’s witty, supportive producer Eloise while Ashton Kutcher is terribly miscast as a West Texas record producer who chooses to spend his fortune seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Directorially, Novak takes the most risks in the opening moments as he establishes a quick paced editing style that bounces back and forth between dialogue in choppy bits to help symbolize the disperse, fleeting nature of New York conversations and elongates these moments as Vengeance heads south.

The centerpiece of this film should be Novak’s witty script, which has moments of sharp reflection and some genuinely funny interactions between his fish-out-of-water New Yorker with West Texas culture. But his view of Texas life is so often skewed by loose caricature that it’s unclear by the end if Novak has learned any of the lessons his film tries to preach.

Yet somehow in spite of itself, Vengeance has enough disjointed parts to be one of the summer’s most entertaining and original features that audiences looking for something fresh should consider checking out in theaters or at home closer to the end of the year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: