Producers: Jason Blum, Adam Hendricks and Greg Gilreath Director: B.J. Novak Screenplay: B.J. Novak Cast: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, J. Smith-Cameron, Eli Abrams Bickel, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara, Louanne Stephens, Zach Villa and John Mayer Distributor: Focus Features
B.J. Novak, perhaps best known for his role as Ryan Howard on “The Office,” has set himself quite a task as the first-time writer, director and star of a complex combination of fish-out-of-water comedy-drama and murder mystery. He’s not Orson Welles after all, although in certain respects “Vengeance” is reminiscent of “The Third Man,” and one of the prominent characters in it is sort of a West Texas Harry Lime.
Novak’s Ben Manalowitz is a NYC writer working for The New Yorker but anxious to make a mark on podcasts. As his conversation with his chum John (John Mayer) at a cocktail party makes clear, though, he’s a shallow guy with shallow ideas, interested mostly in playing the womanizer with pretty girls he beds a few times and then drops.
Given his modus operandi with women, he’s shocked to get a phone call from a fellow named Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) from a small town in Texas, who claims to be the brother of his girlfriend Abilene. Ty tells him that Abilene, or Abby for short (Lio Tipton), has died of a suspicious opioid overdose and not only expects him to come to her funeral but to help avenge what he is certain was a murder.
Ben barely remembers the girl, but reluctantly flies to Texas for the service, and quickly realizes that there might be a story in her death, a notion that podcast maven Eloise (Issa Rae), after some hesitation, concurs with. Against the backdrop of his having to come to terms with Texas, and especially Abilene’s peculiar family—excitable Ty, his softer but insistent mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron) and tart-tongued granny Carole (Louanne Stephens), Abby’s sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City, aka Jasmine (Dove Cameron) and her little brother Mason, nicknamed El Stupido (Elli Abrams Bickel)—Ben tries to unravel what really happened to Abilene, or at least enough of her story to make for a satisfying podcast, since endings susceptible to alternate conclusions are all the rage in such fare.
Of course, Ben’s initial condescension toward the locals, and especially the Shaws, is challenged as he gets to view them from all angles, and he develops an especially touching bond with Mason, who regards him as a sort of replacement for Abby, with whom he was close. And though, expectedly, his more glowing assessment of them is challenged by surprises toward the close regarding Abby’s choice of recreations and partners, it’s never entirely undone.
As for his investigation of Abby’s death, there are bits of business that aren’t especially inspired—a roundelay targeting various elements of the Texas policing establishment, each one avoiding responsibility by shifting jurisdiction to one of the others, doesn’t catch fire; it just makes one recall how much more zest Charles Durning brought to his dance as the sidestepping governor of the state in the only memorable scene from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Nor does Ben’s initial suspicion, at Ty’s insistence, of Sancholo (Zach Villa), a drug trafficker who had a strong interest in Abby—a story thread that literally goes nowhere. There’s also a car explosion that at first seems malicious but is quickly dismissed as accidental; one wonders why it’s even included, except to provide a rare jolt of excitement. In each case much of the trouble lies with a degree of laxity in Novak’s direction, which prizes deadpan reaction over energy or tension.
More intriguing is the apparent involvement of Ashton Kutcher as Quinten Sellers (could the name be a tribute to Peter Sellers’ Clare Quilty?), a white-suited music promoter at whose studio Abby, an aspiring singer, recorded some demo tracks. Ben is taken aback by the fellow’s mellow philosophizing, which strikes him as oddly deep given the locale and causes him to reconsider his dismissal of the place as a redneck haven. Drawling out his lines like a hypnotic cowboy guru, Kutcher effortlessly steals his every scene, including the one that explains the picture’s title, if not everything else (including the rationale behind Abby’s portrayal of Ben as the love her life).
Actually shot in New Mexico by Lyn Moncrief (the purported location is indicated by a reference to Marfa as the site of Sellers’ studio), “Vengeance” captures the flat, dusty atmosphere of West Texas nicely, and some of the gags—like the Shaws’ devotion to Whataburger and a stark division in college football loyalties revealed at a local rodeo—show that Novak really studied the ethos of the area.
But he doesn’t really exhibit the charm or charisma needed to carry the picture—his sad-sack persona seems more suited to supporting parts than the lead—and while he has a nice rapport with Bickel, you might find yourself awaiting an infusion of something more vivid from Holbrook, Stephens or Kutcher to get you over the doldrums. Fortunately Novak is generous with them, and the other members of his cast; Ben may be on screen pretty constantly, but his creator isn’t afraid to cede the limelight to the other characters, which is all to the good. Production designers Hillary and Courtney Andujar, along with costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin, have worked with Moncrief to draw a sharp distinction between the New York and Texas scenes, and editors Andy Canny, Hilda Rasula and Plummy Tucker have put in a lot of effort to keep the narrative clear; when things get a mite confusing, it seems less their fault than Novak’s. Finneas O’Connell’s score is evocative, and some snippets of original songs are right on.
One can appreciate Novak’s effort to show respect for West Texas culture while ribbing both it and East Coast denigration of it—that’s an ambitious agenda when played out as a murder mystery, and you have to admire the attempt; the result is certainly one of the better Blumhouse productions, though that’s not saying all that much. But ultimately “Vengeance” is more interesting for its reach than its grasp, and in the end like its star it’s just too soft and mild to leave a lasting impression.