"Welcome to Texas."
Known largely for NBC's The Office, B.J. Novak is no stranger to the spotlight. But Vengeance, his terrifically paced feature-length directorial debut, showcases his tremendous work both in front of and behind the camera.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a writer for the New Yorker who gets a call in the middle of the night from someone telling him his girlfriend Abilene has overdosed. The family is hoping, mostly expecting, for him to attend the funeral in West Texas. Ben is surprised by the information, hardly remembering the girl; she was a mere number in a long line of hookups. Nonetheless, he does as requested and flies out to the desert to pay his respect. After the service, he spends time with Abilene's family, including her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook), a small-town cowboy convinced his sister's overdose is a setup. He believes she was murdered.
Ben, an opportunistic narcissist, sees an opening, calling his friend Eloise (Issa Rae), who runs a posh podcast company, and pitching a true-crime series about a Dead White Girl. Eloise bites, green lighting the project and prompting Ben to stay safe and get the story.
A true fish-out-of-water experience, Vengeance succeeds thanks to its writing. Mixing humor with sincerity, Novak captures Texas's identity, allowing the film to bask in all of its randomnesses, both for and at the expense of a joke. One such moment is when a casual living room conversation turns to Whataburger. When Ben tries to get the family to explain their love for the burger franchise, they can't. Ben doesn't understand it. But later, when he has his first experience at the fast food chain, he also finds the feeling indescribable.
Novak never takes his setting for granted, hitting the New York City hipster culture as hard as he does the small town Texas lifestyle. In a way, that is what makes Vengeance so defined. He did his research, even capturing small nuances of Texas traditions as Ben finds himself in Raider country, trying desperately to explain what makes The University of Texas so great. It's a regional rivalry (some would say conflict) that the film gets right, simultaneously poking fun at the people who live it and those who don't know or understand it.
Though Ben is a heavily unlikable protagonist, Vengeance works to give him the occasional redeeming quality. Some bedroom chats with El Stupido (Eli Bickel), Abilene's younger brother, who is afraid of ghosts, allow viewers to see Ben's kindness. It's essential in the character's development as we notice his hard outer layer slowly giving way, though his social intelligence remains stagnant.
While the entire supporting cast is terrific, Ashton Kutcher steals nearly every scene he is in as local music producer and unapologetic self-taught philosopher Quentin Sellers. Dressed like a cowboy cult leader, Sellers has a way with words. Equally fascinating and annoying, you can understand the town's fixation with the man, and Kutcher's performance is just off-beat enough to work within the film's larger narrative.
Sadly Vengeance runs out of steam at the eleventh hour, with Novak unable to wrap up the loose ends effectively after the murder mystery appears solved. But then again, the murder mystery only exists as an avenue to the cultural class comedy. And that, unquestionably, is on point.