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film review

B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in Vengeance.Patti Perret/Focus Features

  • Vengeance
  • Written and directed by B.J. Novak
  • Starring B.J. Novak, Issa Rae and Ashton Kutcher
  • Classification R; 94 minutes
  • Opens in theatres July 29

Are you sick of watching movies that centre on the boring lives of writers, such as last winter’s The Tender Bar? You might be. But be careful what you wish for, because the alternative to focusing on writers could be much worse – instead you could be watching a film about a podcaster.

Are podcasts or podcasters inherently interesting or smart? No, not really, and certainly not on film. But B.J. Novak seems to think so with his feature directorial debut, Vengeance.

Starring, directed by and written by Novak (The Office), Vengeance centres on New York journalist Ben Manalowitz, a man who has it all. Bylines at every prestigious publication in the city, a cool apartment and a gaggle of beautiful women who are constantly texting him for booty calls. But what he really wants is a podcast.

One night, Ben gets a call from the brother (Boyd Holbrook) of one of his past hookups, who asks him to attend his sister’s funeral – it turns out that the dead woman, Abby, was believed by her family to be Ben’s steady girlfriend. Unable to say no or explain to this grieving man that he barely remembers who Abby was, Ben goes to the middle of nowhere Texas for her funeral. Once there, Ben realizes that Abby’s brother doesn’t believe that his sister died of an apparent opioid overdose, but instead was the victim of murder. That’s when Ben calls a producer he knows, Eloise (Issa Rae), and pitches the story as a podcast.

It is clear that Novak made Vengeance as a means to parody the lecherous and morally unsound world of podcast reporting, where a dude wielding a New Yorker tote bag can go to the Deep South to make sense of the real America. Novak, however, does not possess the required depth to make the film’s pricklier themes work onscreen. Abby’s family are flat caricatures of Texans, with Ben being another caricature with just a little more emotional colour.

As a director, Novak would likely be more successful if he hadn’t cast himself as the main focus of his own mystery.Patti Perret/Focus Features

As a director, Novak would likely be more successful if he hadn’t cast himself as the main focus of his own mystery. There are occasional moments when the film is so close to feeling like it is accomplishing its goals – to be seen as a sharp and comedic critique of the cost of storytelling, with a fun little whodunnit at its core – but it never quite gets there. The character of Ben is the butt of many coastal elite jokes, but it’s clear that Novak needed Ben to ultimately be redeemed for his selfishness – even if that doesn’t fall in line with how the world he’s critiquing actually functions.

Vengeance has some infrequent laughs and, to Novak’s credit, is well-paced. But ultimately it just doesn’t have much to say that’s worth watching – or even worth listening to as a podcast.

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