Actor B.J. Novak (“The Office”, “Saving Mr. Banks”) has written and directed his first film, which he also stars in. “Vengeance” is not a cold-blooded action thriller. Nor is it a prequel to the awful 2010 family feature “Furry Vengeance” with Brendan Fraser (which still gives me chills every time I think about it).
This is a dark comedy murder mystery. Ben (Novak) is a freelance writer, living in NYC. But Ben wants to be so much more. He wants to be a podcast star. While on a constant search for the story that will land him a show, Ben receives a phone call from the brother of Abilene, a casual friend he hooked-up with a few times. She’s dead, and the family (who thinks Ben was her longtime boyfriend) wants him to come to Texas for the funeral… and to help them figure out who killed her.
That, to Ben and the big podcast network producer he’s pitching (played by Issa Rae), is one hell of a story. So he heads to Texas — in hopes that this is the big career break he’s been looking for.
The first sidestep “Vengeance” takes from the usual entries in the “fish out of water” genre is that Ben is upfront about turning this adventure into a podcast (recording all his conversations and sending the audio back to NY). And Abilene’s quirky family members are thrilled. As are the local police and all her friends — even the one accused of killing her. They’re more than happy to assist Ben in sharing Abilene’s story with the world.
Unfortunately, that’s one of the few unique angles Novak takes with the screenplay. The first half of “Vengeance” is filled with long, overly talky scenes. Novak comes-out swinging with overwhelming, grandiose statements about relationships and life, followed by typical culture clash scenes featuring plenty of cornball moments designed to make the Texans look seem ignorant compared to his NYC slickness (and he occasionally flips things, clumsily).
And then Ashton Kutcher shows up as a cowboy hat/boots wearing record producer. Quinten is also a “fish out of water”. Ben (and we) get sucked into this guy’s world. It’s as if he’s from a completely different, more poetic and genuinely interesting movie. This is Kutcher’s first non-cameo film role since playing Steve Jobs in the underrated 2013 biopic “Jobs”. His screen time in “Vengeance” is limited but quite memorable.
But, as “Vengeance” moves along, it reverts back to some of its bad habits. However, there is enough here to keep you interested. Total satisfaction? That’s a no. This murder mystery vs. career building caper plays-out in an all too neat, convenient, unsurprising fashion.
At 42, Novak feels a bit old for the Ben character (tough to pass-up the lead in your directorial debut). He does shows potential as a filmmaker, but, unlike in Texas where “everything is bigger”, “Vengeance” is only a modest success.