Vengeance: The Reticent Revenge Film

Everyone from the American rendition of The Office (2005 – 2013) will get to make a movie. If John Krasinski, an actor and sometimes director of that show, could do such a bang-up job with the first A Quiet Place (2018), who says no to BJ Novac also directing and acting in his own film? Not Blumhouse and Focus Features, who greenlit his new film, an awkward Dear Evan Hansen (2021) for adults. It’s on the wrong side of contemporary clichés: a dude who wants a podcast finds out a one-time hookup died and leverages her death to get his own podcast about the state of America! Disgusting. It plays out as awkwardly as that sounds, with more holes than swiss cheese. Just about all of its ideas are non-starters.

So, BJ Novak stars, if that’s the word for it this time, as Ben Manalowitz (not a sequel to Mank (2020), but sounds like it would be), a white guy who talks to his white friend and decides their drunk ramblings should be heard by everyone. He is a bit of a feckless playboy, his life full of random hookups and no genuine connections beyond bad friends who advise him he should be doing podcasts. Don’t get involved. A woman gets involved and happens to die. Her relatives, thinking Manalowitz (never getting over this name) was her longterm boyfriend, invites him to Texas.

It feels like a uniquely bad time for a film that espouses the virtues of Texas. Vengeance kind of does and kind of doesn’t, which is how it approaches just about everything. Again, it buries itself in clichés about Texas that, through new associations with a family that our character is badly manipulating, he may come to terms with, and come to appreciate the big old state. It’s an uphill battle: Manalowitz (it gets funnier every time), thinks that Texas won at the Alamo. Thinks Texans don’t know what writers are. Believes they do not know what his home of New York is. What a weird set of beliefs for a character.

It’s also 2022. Again, Texas is on the wrong side of so many issues. Forgive us for not wanting to indulge the Lone Star State for a little light comedy tourism. This kind of podcast wrapping also feels old hat. A guy happening into a Serial-adjacent podcast is the subject of a dozen television shows and movies. Even Serial has moved on and is doing other things. As BJ Novak awkwardly pieces together interviews of family members and extended associates, we hardly believe him, or them. Every reading, besides some of Novak’s, feel off the mark. Most of what’s said doesn’t make sense or so neatly and obviously builds a mounting case for the mystery of what happened, that sitting through its insipid dialogues feels awfully insulting.

Let’s say one thing for the film: the idea of a conflicted revenge-seeking figure is potentially refreshing. It’s almost an idea. You can begin to see where things were being sketched out and how the movie got made out of this fish-out-of-water, unwitting redemption story. It just doesn’t land any of that material, so it’s hard to count any of it in its favor. Like the podcaster at its center, it’s a film in search of a story.

It doesn’t get much better. The poor woman’s grieving family has to deal with his sorry self. Her younger brother, El Stupido (more likely name than Manalowitz) is poorly directed as a child actor. The whole family really loves Whataburger, for reasons that are not specific, besides it’s always available, and that’s the most you’ll really find out about them. The other thing you’ll learn about them is they embody some mysterious Down South spirit that the film neither investigates nor cares to flesh out. You just learn something about life living down there. Like Whataburger, it’s just there. Oh well.

There is no engine to the movie, not really. We know that Manalowitz (okay, now it’s getting ridiculous) is a deceptive dude. The family probably knows this but they’re being deceived a few times over. Another idea of the film is that Texas people are just that easy to trick; not because they’re dumb, but because they’re actually smart. The movie doesn’t know why, it just says things like that.

The jokes don’t land. The references don’t add up. Sadly, the film is inert and lifeless. Characters spout inane regional jargon and it feels like caricature, except the portraits are so inconsistently drawn that nothing much can really be perceived through them. There is not quite any redemptive element to note, not much reason the film ought to find an audience, except that we all like movies to succeed and seemingly fine people to get to make more of them. BJ Novak is just much more likable than his movie. What a shame. Whataburger. Manalowitz.


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