When I was a teenager I once remarked to my older brother, who for as long as I can remember has shaped the way I think about subjects ranging from sports to serious world issues, that I thought it was incredible that Weezer came out of the gate with their fantastic self-titled debut album (known by most as The Blue Album). My brother, who in those days spent much of his time behind two large computer monitors, pushed back as only he could, by explaining to me that it is actually quite common for a debut album to be a band’s best effort. After all, he expanded, there are less time constraints or outside interference. “And besides,” he finished, “Pinkerton was better anyway.”
As I sat through Vengeance, Hollywood veteran B.J. Novak’s (The Office) feature film directorial and writing debut, this conversation kept coming back to me. This film is so grandiose in what it tries to accomplish, it almost has to be a debut. Despite a runtime of only 107 minutes, Novak jam packs so many different themes and social commentaries it is almost overwhelming. To be fair, this isn’t technically his debut (and no I don’t mean the episodes of The Office he wrote). Novak created The Premise, a five episode anthology series for FX that premiered in the Fall of 2021. Much like Vengeance, The Premise attempted to cover a lot of ground, but ultimately felt scattered and aimless, like a raft in a crosswind. Vengeance succeeds because it is anything but scattered. Novak probably bites off more than he can chew thematically, but his film is grounded by a singular, focused narrative that is executed wonderfully from start to finish.
Vengeance is a story about Ben (played by Novak), a journalist who aspires to tell a story. Ben is the perfect cliché of a Millennial New Yorker; he talks fast and confidently, but his words, and relationships, are largely hollow. In the opening scene, he talks about relationships with John Mayer and their dialogue, while amusing, reeks of two people trying to see who can be the most superficial. When one talks, the other responds “100 percent” in agreement. Neither look up from their phones as they text away trying to find their fling of the night. It is fitting that John is so much taller than Ben, because the way Ben mimics John’s mannerisms, from his dialect & posture to his views on relationships with the opposite sex, it is clear Ben looks up to John. Or at least, views John as the way someone in their age & class should be. This serves as wonderful foreshadowing for Ben’s personal growth throughout the film.
After Ben invites one of the sexual encounters from his past, saved in his phone with a vague nickname, to join him for a nightcap, he is awoken by a phone call from the brother of another past sexual encounter, Abilene (Lio Tipton, Two Night Stand), who informs him that she has died and persuades him to travel from New York to a small town in Texas for the funeral. Ben, not confident enough in his words to decline, or inform her brother that Abilene was no one other than a brief fling to him, relents and makes the journey South. When he gets there, he sees a family (Abilene left behind a mother, two sisters, and two brothers) filled with grief and certain that her death, which was ruled an overdose, involved foul play. This gives Ben all of the inspiration and source material he has been seeking for a story to tell; so he helps the family investigate Abilene’s death as he interviews and records everyone involved for a podcast series.
This may seem simplistic and recycled, but I assure you Vengeance is anything but either of those things. At the heart of the film is Novak, who is a revelation in front of and behind the camera. In the second Act, Ben speaks to Quentin Sellers (played wonderfully by an off-type Ashton Kutcher) a music producer who had helped Abilene make some of her music prior to her death, and they discuss the process of making music. “People don’t write things,” he says, “they translate what they see. They’re not writers, they’re narrators.” Novak may have written this film, but it would be more accurate to call him (and/or Ben) the narrator of this universe. Everything we see is seen through his eyes, and everything we hear is interpreted through the lens of his (limited) experiences.
As the narrative weaves its way to a somewhat predictable conclusion; the film navigates waters rarely traveled by modern Hollywood writers. Ben heads to Texas with rock solid worldviews and preconceived notions about the place he is traveling to. Through him, Novak warns against painting with one broad brush. We also are introduced to Novak’s view on the value of connection and family. As Ben chides this Texas family for not being as progressive and enlightened as his fellow New Yorkers, Abilene’s older brother Ty asks how many of them would have taken a stranger like him in or consoled him at the hospital after his car is attacked, without being asked. In the climax of the movie, Ben learns about the meaning of modern life; which is that in a world where everything matters to everyone, nothing actually matters. We’re all just trying to leave a record of our time here on earth, but these records, due to modern social media, are manufactured and fraudulent.
Some of these overarching themes hit harder than others. Some of them are handled gracefully while others are clunky. That’s okay. Novak, a Harvard graduate, has a lot to say. But you never feel as though you’re being preached to or that he is expressing a certainty. In fact, when Ben has his falling out with the Shaw family, he immediately calls his boss and laments that if he is the star of the podcast, then the podcast is empty, because that’s what he is. In a world of echo chambers and endless self-assuredness, the humility with which Novak approaches his Blue Album is refreshing. That he was able to tie together such an entertaining, and at times funny, story, makes some of the misses more forgivable. And maybe it’s because much of what he has to say about the world resonates and aligns with how I view it, but dammit if I don’t admire him for trying.
Vengance is available to stream on Prime Video.