Vengeance (2022)

B.J. NOVAK

Bil’s rating (out of 5): B.5

USA, 2022. , . Screenplay by B.J. Novak. Cinematography by . Produced by , , . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by , , .

B.J. Novak writes, directs and stars as a successful New York writer and podcaster who enjoys a carefree noncommittal life with the ladies, his playboy antics coming back on him full force when he receives a phone call in the middle of the night from a stranger. The caller, played by , is the brother of a girl who died of a drug overdose and who told her family that Novak was her great love during her time pursuing her music career in the Big Apple, and they need him to come down to the Lone Star State to attend her funeral.

Novak obliges despite barely remembering this conquest, showing up in a flat, almost barren landscape of a town where he is goaded into speaking at her funeral and going along with the assumed premise that he was deeply, seriously in love with her. Holbrook believes that her death was actually the result of foul play, as she was never someone who would do drugs enough to die from it, and Novak is inspired to turn sleuth and investigate the mystery of her demise, recording his findings as the basis for a podcast that his producer back home (played in a spirit performance by ) gets behind, receiving tapes of his interviews and insisting that he has the makings of another Serial on his hands.

As he delves into the mystery, however, he finds himself plunged into a series of increasingly bizarre secrets and dangerous experiences involving the colourful locals, including Holbrook’s warm and welcoming mother (), ornery grandmother () and a lothario music producer ( in a surprisingly effective turn) who carries a barely detectable sense of threat beneath his calm and steady demeanor.

On the basis of its premise, this sounds like rich territory for exploring the urban vs. rural American cultural divide, disaffected coastal elites getting their asses handed to them by emotionally mature but misunderstood citizens of Trump territory, but in execution the film is tonally all over the map and supported by the very poor narrative structure of Novak’s haphazard script. Few of the plot turns make much sense, beginning with his reason for even agreeing to fly across the country on the basis of being guilted by a confusing phone call, and most of the Texan characters feel very much like Hollywood actors putting on cowboy drag.

One particular moment, when the main character accidentally cheers for the wrong football team at a rodeo, is emblematic of the entire film’s woeful confusion, the kind of joke that is clearly there because he’s seen the same sort of thing in other movies and is employing as an excuse to get his character into the situation that follows.

It becomes clear very quickly that Novak began with a moral lesson and filled the story in later, particularly the lecturing tone the film takes in telling us about the lack of communication between the right and the left and the lack of self-reflection in both camps that leads to the disasters that befall these people. Obsessively arguing intellectual common sense eventually leads to narcissism and the kind of emotional, irrational action that the lead character takes in the finale, but with a series of characters who are never convincing as people and a story that has so little exploration, Novak’s final move feels like the falsely calculated of them all.

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