The Office on NBC spawned just a crazy amount of acting talent. Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, Ed Helms, Mindy Kaling, John Krasinski, and even Oscar Nunez have gone onto solid careers on the big and small screen. I wonder if that success around him made BJ Novak a bit jealous, so much so that he moved to the south for a hot second and stumbled upon a way to put himself back in front of the camera. Novak gets figurative Vengeance on his Office colleagues as he reclaims his spotlight, while his character learns the real meaning of the world deep in middle of nowhere Texas.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a writer in a creative rut. He tries pitching mediocre ideas to his friend Eloise (Issa Rae) which she shoots down nicely, one by one. After another meaningless NYC hookup, Ben gets a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook). Ty is the brother of Abilene Shaw (Analeigh Tipton), a former Ben FWB who has recently passed away from a drug overdose. After attending Abilene’s funeral and meeting Kansas City (Dove Cameron), Paris (Isabella Amara), Sharon (J. Smith Cameron), and the other members of the Shaw family, Ben sees an opportunity to get out of his rut, and pitches Eloise a podcast about his time with these strange folk and what that has to say about America.
Vengeance is pretty frustrating, because it’s so close to identifying something universally resonant. Ironically, Novak the actor gets in the way of Novak the writer/director, believing in his own narrative about his resurgence instead of focusing on the really meaty non-Novak material. The Shaw family is the gift that keeps on giving. Initially, they’re shown as the Texas stereotypes we’re all expecting them to be: braindead gun nuts paranoid to the point of making conspiracy theories. However, as Novak digs deeper, he finds the complicated humanity within all of the family, saddened by the death of their sister, and showcasing a strange adept understanding of their little world but lacking the guidance to see the bigger picture. Even more amazingly, Ashton Kutcher shows up as a music producer and instantly mesmerizes the audience with his incredible, nuanced monologues about people and the world as it exists today. The more Ben listens and stop judging people he doesn’t understand, he finds that bridge of humanity missing in his life, which has previously been a pursuit towards short term fame/celebrity.
Maybe Ben the character would feel threatened by the Shaw family and take the story back himself, but BJ Novak the writer director should know better, and boldly removed his character from the movie Psycho style halfway though. Instead, the movie sidelines its more interesting Shaw characters in favor of a so-so murder mystery Ben has to solve, as he learns things about himself through the more interesting characters. This perspective shift messes with the story’s momentum, instead manufacturing conflict with Ben and the family so he can grow as a character event though we’re not super interested in him. This leads to a wild finale, that sometimes works but mostly feels forced toward Novak’s preferred conclusion, not the right one for the better story he was telling earlier in the film.
The phrase “Heart Sees Heart” is mentioned a lot in Vengeance. I see BJ Novak’s heart in all its complications: he wants to say so much, but gets lost along the way trying to elevate himself that he loses the point semi-frequently. I hope Novak takes more time to see the audience’s heart, so the next time he makes a film he really gives them something special, and we go to Whataburger to celebrate.