​​B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in Vengeance, written and directed by B.J. Novak; courtesy of Focus Features

In Vengeance, B.J. Novak plays a snobby coastal elite in the media industry who travels from New York to West Texas, where he finds good material for a podcast. This role and premise are not a stretch for Novak, who also wrote and directed the film, since he is a Harvard-educated coastal elite who works in the entertainment industry. At first, Novak seems self-aware enough to recognize that audiences might feel dubious about his endeavor, so he includes obligatory scenes of self-flagellation where he acknowledges he will never understand “real America.” But then something funny happens: Through his unlikeable protagonist, the film wants to diagnose the real problems facing our country. First-time features are rarely this solipsistic or grandiose.

When we first meet Novak’s character Ben, he’s at a swanky rooftop cocktail party chatting with his friend John (as in the sexist, racist singer-songwriter John Mayer, which raises suspicions in and of itself). Their dialogue is cheerful, misanthropic, and hollow; there is a reason their only audience is each other. A phone call interrupts Ben’s shallow life of privilege and meaningless relationships: Ty (Boyd Holbrook) is grieving the sudden death of his sister Abilene (Lio Tipton), and since she used to date Ben, Ty insists Ben attend the funeral in Texas. Ben agrees, and after some lazy fish out of water comedy, Ty tells Ben he believes Abilene was murdered. Together they work to avenge her death, except Ben has an ulterior motive. He pitches his investigation to his podcast editor, Eloise (Issa Rae), and proceeds to record everyone as he silently judges. Ben is able to keep his distance from them, at least until he believes he can actually solve the mystery.

This framing device could work as a New York Times article, but not as a film, where every character becomes a Straw Man. Ty and his family are avatars for gun-loving Texas folk who distrust outsiders and authority, while Ben is an avatar for out-of-touch liberals who sport NPR tote bags and pour-over coffee. No actual person fully embodies a stereotype, and while it is a common arc for an outsider like Ben to be disabused of his prejudice, Vengeance falters due to its delusions of grandeur. It uses stereotypes and tired cliches as the basis for a grander theory about American life, without acknowledging the fallacy that the argument is built on shaky ground. When Novak’s script targets low-hanging fruit, such as Eloise’s observation that “dead White girls” are catnip for podcast fans, the line is lazy misdirection. By being upfront about easy cynicism, Novak figures later revelations will appear more sincere. In fact, the opposite is true, as Vengeance is cynical from start to finish.

Vengeance’s lengthy middle section should involve Ben getting to know Ty’s family better. We meet his mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and other sisters (Dove Cameron and Isabella Amara), but only at the most superficial level. Ben, and Novak by extension, have no interest in their values, their dreams, or their interiority. Instead, the film presents Ben with a series of tests in which he must prove his manhood or assimilation into the Texan identity, all filmed with a sitcom sensibility that is grating on the big screen. There is a rodeo where Ben humiliates himself, along with an obligatory trip to a regional fast-food restaurant with a fanatic Texas following; both serve as screenwriting obstacles, not cultural shibboleths. Lazy character development cuts both ways, as we have little sense of Ben beyond his snide remarks and naked desire for status. In the big scene where Ty’s family tells off Ben, each nasty line of dialogue is more contrived than the last because Novak, in scene after scene, demonstrates zero curiosity in almost all of his characters.

The only possible exception is Quentin (Ashton Kutcher), a music producer Ben meets in Marfa, Texas, a small, bougie artist enclave in West Texas. Quentin is confident and slick, the kind of snake oil salesman who speaks in disarming pseudo-profundities. Kutcher has fun with the role, adding more dimension than exists on the page, to the point where the other scenes are less lively by comparison. Kutcher’s standout performance unintentionally comes at a cost, since his character arc ends with a way that upends everything Novak attempts to accomplish. Vengeance was produced by Blumhouse, a company known for low-budget horror, so it should not be entirely surprising the film ends in violence. (Ben also references Chekhov’s gun, you know, in case we don’t fully get it.) A grim punchline requires a thoughtful setup, something Novak has a marked disinterest in building.

It appears Novak and Ben are more alike than he would care to admit. It takes a special kind of arrogance, the kind that only comes with an elite education, that you can accurately pin down a community you barely visit. I have been to West Texas enough times to realize it cannot be easily or neatly summarized, but I know that part of the state especially has a large Latino population that Novak nearly ignores (it will not shock you to learn the only Latino character is a gang member). With each inauthentic flourish after another, with each lie by omission, Vengeance loses its grip. By the time the phony conclusion arrives, it amounts to little more than an implied insult at the audience’s expense.

YouTube video

Vengeance opens at area theaters on July 29.