"Vengeance" walks a confident walk between crime, black comedy, and Texas social satire


Vengeance (2022)

"Vengeance" walks a pretty confident tightrope as a crime-focused, West Texas-set black comedy with more substance than a deep-fried Twinkie. It never really comes across as a filmmaker’s first time at the helm, and yet, this is B.J. Novak’s feature directorial debut. Known for playing Ryan Howard in "The Office" (of which he was also an episode writer, producer, and director), Novak hands in his chits and makes a tastily southern-fried, smartly observed dark comedy about the line between journalism and exploitation and the red-blue state divide in America.

Novak stars as Ben Manalowtiz, a writer for The New Yorker who’s also a podcaster looking for a good story. One night after going out with wingman John (surprisingly, a naturally funny John Mayer) and having a regular hookup with a young woman, he gets a call in the middle of the night. It’s a man named Ty (Boyd Holbrook), the brother of Abilene “Abby” Shaw (Lio Tipton), one of Ben’s former hookups. Thinking Ben and Abby were actually in a substantial relationship, Ty breaks the news to Ben that Abby’s body was found in an oil field. This sparks a fire under Ben’s butt to get to Texas for the funeral, where he’ll get close to Abby’s family, record everything, and turn it all into a worthwhile story full of “local color” for his podcast. Things get even more interesting when Ty believes Abby was murdered (even though the cause of death was ruled an opioid overdose) and wants Ben to join him in avenging his sister’s murder. It is sensationalistic and opportunistic on Ben’s part, but the pitch excites Ben’s producer Eloise (Issa Rae), and maybe the podcast, dubbed “Dead White Girl,” could be a surefire hit.

"Vengeance" does initially feel like a pretty standard “mistaken identity” setup that leads to some fish-out-of-water comic situations. Early on, Ben ends up being asked to give a brief eulogy at Abby’s funeral, even though he didn’t even know Abby well enough or that she was an aspiring singer. Later, when he’s already ingratiated himself with the Shaws and attends a local rodeo, Ben is the only one to stand up and cheer for the University of Texas, only to be ridiculed. Luckily, Novak is not vain enough to not make his own protagonist the target of a joke on more than a few occasions, and that’s one of the film’s freshest wrinkles. Read the full review at Phindie.

Grade: B

Focus Features is releasing "Vengeance" (107 min.) in theaters on July 29, 2022.