So, I went into Vengeance knowing next to nothing about it. I knew it was the first movie written and directed by B. J. Novak (Ryan from The Office). And it had good reviews. And… that’s about it. It’s always a crapshoot, going into a movie blind. But I’m pleased to say that Vengeance was laugh-out-loud funny, unexpectedly dramatic, and overall an enjoyable experience.
The premise is that B. J. Novak is a liberal who gets stuck with conservatives. Ultimately, that’s what the film’s drama and comedy boils down to. And it’s amazing. It’s always refreshing to see movies embrace America’s political divide head-on, rather than awkwardly stumble around it. The film has a pitch-perfect understanding of liberal and conservative stereotypes, and Novak gets a lot of mileage out of the characters gawking at and being triggered by ‘the other side’.
The actual story is: B. J. Novak is a stereotypical city-dwelling millennial who wants to make the next big podcast. But then he learns that one of his hookups (a girl he barely remembers) died of a drug overdose. And apparently her family thinks that B. J. Novak was the love of her life… So, he unexpectedly finds himself in a middle-of-nowhere town in Texas, pretending to be the loving boyfriend for this girl’s grieving family.
And THEN, the girl’s brother (Boyd Holbrook) suggests that he and Novak get vengeance on the men who killed her – which he has no evidence for, by the way. It’s just a gut feeling. Even though it’s simpler to admit she overdosed, the brother is in denial and just wants to get payback on… Someone…
Which gives Novak an idea: what if he made a podcast about how idiots in Texas are motivated by conspiracies and outdated concepts like vengeance? He could call the podcast ‘Dead White Girl’, and while ostensibly it would be a true-crime podcast, in reality it would be a front to make fun of conservatives and their generally backwards way of life.
Thus, comedy and drama ensue, and you really have to just watch the film to appreciate it. To Novak’s credit, he effectively eviscerates both sides. It’s the sort of film that both sides enjoy, because he leans into stereotypes HARD, to consistently entertaining results. But also in a way that doesn’t dehumanize or belittle either side, even if it does expose flawed ways of thinking.
That said, the film would almost have been better as a satirical podcast. It has a ridiculous amount of ideas, which I appreciate – but a movie isn’t always the best outlet for merely expressing your ideas. It’s about visuals, about atmosphere, about taking breaks in between dialogue to just let the story breathe.
Unfortunately, Novak’s script is very dense and very talky – which works well for the comic scenes, less so for the drama. The finale especially is deflated rather frustratingly by being TOO dialogue-driven. Ironically, there’s an earlier scene where Novak lashes out at his host family, a scene which works far better in terms of pacing and tension-building. It would have been an ideal finale, as opposed to the showdown with the ‘antagonist’.
Quick tangent for a second – if you end up enjoying the movie, then I’d highly recommend The Kid Detective. They have a surprising amount in common.
I’m also puzzled as to why this got a wide release. It feels much more suited to a streaming platform. I’m happy, don’t get me wrong – we need more variety in theaters. But unlike most other crime dramas, there’s virtually nothing visceral or graphic. No crime scene photos or mangled corpses. The shock is in the premise and the dialogue, not the visuals.
Still, it’s definitely a strong debut from Novak. He’s an undeniably gifted storyteller, a superb comedy writer, and I haven’t stopped thinking about the film since I saw it. I look forward to his future projects – hopefully with less emphasis on the dialogue, as long as it’s not at the expense of his ideas.