Best-known as Ryan from The Office: An American Workplace, B.J. Novak makes his feature directorial debut with this passable comedy thriller. Tinged with late-90s neo-noir vibes, Vengeance is an entertaining enough 100 minutes or so that more or less meet their modest if uninspiring ambitions.
Ben (Novak) is a successful but unfulfilled writer for the New Yorker. When he’s not pitching story ideas to his editor on the breakdown of the American myth, he’s mindlessly sleeping with anonymous women or engaging in equally mindless banter with his inane friends. After another drunken fling, Ben is awoken by a phone call from a man claiming to be his girlfriend Abiline’s brother, who is calling to tell him that she has died; Ben neither knows the brother nor the girlfriend to whom he is referring. Nevertheless, smelling a story Ben agrees to fly down to Texas for the funeral and potentially get to the the bottom of whatever this is.
Abi allegedly died of an overdose, a verdict belied by her squeaky-clean reputation, so brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suspects foul play. Naturally Ben doesn’t believe him, but agrees to help him investigate in order to facilitate his podcast on the disintegration of American society. It’s a perfectly functional premise for a mid-range comedy like this, but it is also desperately uninspiring, seemingly drawn from a wellspring of story ideas that dried up circa 1999.
Always a charismatic presence, Holbrook carries the film as the rough, unfailingly guileless Ty, but it’s harder to get an emotional handle on Ben. Novak does a fine job essentially replaying his Office slicker schtick as Ben, but he is too lacking in dimension, and his trajectory far too predictable, to bring us along on any kind of emotional journey. His disdain for others is too simplistically parodic to generate much empathy, while his evolution from vacuous metropolitan douchebag is so clearly signalled from the film’s opening frames that it makes little impact when it lands.
The gradual unravelling of the mystery of Abi’s death has a light neo-noirish charm, the plot trundles along at an amiable pace and Novak’s visual direction does the job well enough. For the most part, Vengeance is perfectly entertaining matinee fare, and its light attempts to address America’s deep social divisions are moderately admirable. Ultimately, however, we’re left wondering who Vengeance is actually for. As a comedy about contemporary American society it feels weirdly anachronistic, with an uninspired story told with little urgency or novelty.