The Office's B.J. Novak presents a smug vision of America in Vengeance

click to enlarge The Office's B.J. Novak presents a smug vision of America in Vengeance
Ben & Ty: Two peas in a pod(cast).

B.J. Novak has big ideas about America, and so does Ben Manalowitz, the character Novak plays in Vengeance, his first feature film as a writer and director. Like Novak, Ben is an Ivy League-educated writer who is determined to create something meaningful, even if he has to come up with the major themes before finding any actual material. Ben's medium is podcasting rather than filmmaking, but the approach is the same, a smug judgment of average Americans delivered by a pedantic intellectual.

There's plenty of self-deprecation in Vengeance, which takes the condescending Ben down a few notches by the end. At the same time, Novak can't resist making grand, sweeping statements, delivering his movie's themes in elaborate monologues. At times, those themes are presented with genuine conviction, by characters who seem like real people. More often, though, they just sound like a pompous writer spewing hot air.

Ben is certainly a blowhard, so he fits perfectly into the New York City media world, where he's a contributor to The New Yorker and a fixture on the social scene. What he really wants is to impress big-time public radio podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), so she'll give him his own show. He's certainly not above exploiting the tragic death of a woman he once hooked up with if it means potential podcast stardom.

That woman is Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), whose death in her small Texas hometown has been ruled a drug overdose. Although Ben barely remembers Abilene from their brief encounters while she was living in New York and pursuing a music career, Abilene's family thinks that Ben was her devoted boyfriend, and her grieving brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) convinces Ben to fly to Texas for Abilene's funeral.

Once there, Ben discovers exactly the kind of story about a broken America that would make for a perfect podcast. Ty believes that Abilene was murdered, and he wants Ben to help him enact some old-fashioned vigilante justice. Instead, Ben proposes a podcast, which would bring Abilene's story to the world.

Ben doesn't share Ty's belief that Abilene was murdered, and he sees everyone in this close-knit, conservative town as a character to be inserted into the narrative he's already constructed in his head. But the more time he spends with Abilene's family and friends, the more he starts to understand and even value them as people, a rather obvious lesson that Novak treats like a major revelation. In that way, Vengeance resembles a feature-length episode of Novak's little-watched Hulu anthology series The Premise, which offered belabored commentary on different social issues in each episode.

Vengeance has more time to develop its characters, and real emotions occasionally shine through. Novak's still primarily known for his time as a writer/actor/producer on The Office, and there's plenty of similar cringe comedy in Vengeance, especially when Ben attempts to fit in with various Texas customs and activities. Ben isn't quite as smarmy and insensitive as Novak's The Office character Ryan Howard, but he falls along the same continuum, and the efforts to humanize him aren't particularly convincing.

Surprisingly, the best performance in Vengeance comes from Ashton Kutcher, in his first movie role in eight years, playing a local music producer who's far more intelligent and sophisticated than Ben expects. He provides the perfect balance of charisma and pretention, even when he's saddled with some of the movie's most ponderous speeches. Vengeance comes to life in his handful of scenes, but otherwise loses its way as it goes along, leading to a dark, unearned finale. Novak's big ideas turn out to be as nebulous and forgettable as Ben's. ♦

Two Stars Vengeance
Rated R
Directed by BJ. Novak
Starring B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae

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