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Tribeca Festival / Review – B.J. Novak Makes His Superbly Entertaining Directorial Debut with ‘Vengeance’

There’s a basic human instinct to seek revenge when someone is wronged. What constitutes being wronged is up for debate and will be interpreted differently by each person, but the natural response to any sort of offense will likely be first defined by a desire to get even and then a more rational evaluation of the situation and what’s both necessary and achievable. Some may even choose to exploit another’s desire to act impulsively, a premise explored in humorous fashion in B.J. Novak’s first time behind the camera, Vengeance.

Playboy podcaster Ben Manalowitz (Novak) receives a call from Ty (Boyd Holbrook) that his girlfriend, Abilene (Lio Tipton), is dead. Barely able to remember who this hookup is, Ben is pressured by Ty to travel from New York City to remote West Texas, where he discovers that her family thought they were in a very serious relationship. Initially uncomfortable and eager to leave, Ben is intrigued by Ty’s assertion that Abilene was murdered and opts to stay after pitching the idea of this Middle America world as an engrossing podcast to his editor Eloise (Issa Rae).

(L to R) Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

Vengeance begins by firmly establishing Ben as an obnoxious, self-obsessed protagonist whose ego and personality are difficult to tolerate. Seeing how he treats Ty and other members of Abilene’s family doesn’t do much to make him seem like a good person, and any interest he exhibits in them at first comes purely from a place of exposing the best story. What makes him gradually endearing is how he develops a legitimate connection with these people and their way of life, and even if he still can’t understand it, he does manage to appreciate it and see the value in who they are.

Novak casts himself in the lead role, an effective decision that allows him to use his signature deadpan affect that he debuted on The Office to highlight just how different his city lifestyle and the way they do things in West Texas are. He’s surrounded by a phenomenal cast, with Holbrook a particularly excitable and entertaining best-friend-in-the-making for him. Other notable ensemble players include J. Smith-Cameron as Abilene’s mother, Dove Cameron and Isabelle Amara as her sisters, Eli Bickel as her younger brother, nicknamed El Stupido by his family, and Ashton Kutcher as a music teacher with a distinguished Southern flair.

Issa Rae as Eloise in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Karen Kuehn / Focus Features

Vengeance, which came into the Tribeca Festival with distribution from Focus Features set for later this summer, is a film best experienced in a theater with as large an audience as possible. Seeing its events play out on a big screen is not as crucial as the value of having others who can laugh loudly at the awkwardness and strangeness of this foreign land to which Ben has traveled. It’s not a film that only makes a mockery of those from outside urban areas, but turns its focus on all of its characters, including Ben, to expose their flaws on the way to highlighting their strengths.

Any good comedy also contains elements of drama, and Vengeance is no exception. Its trajectory enables Ben to realize that there is more to these people than he gives them credit for, and he also develops an affinity for a woman whose name he barely remembered in the process of getting to know all the people who loved her. While its serious undertones don’t get in the way of its inherently funny nature, they do serve to enhance the film as a whole, making it an immersive viewing experience that ends on a far more impactful and haunting note than the majority of its content would indicate.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Vengeance makes its world premiere as the Gala selection at the 2022 Tribeca Festival and will be released in theaters on Friday, July 29th.

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzerhttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Abe Friedtanzer is a film and TV enthusiast who spent most of the past fifteen years in New York City. He has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, and is a contributing writer for The Film Experience, Awards Radar, and AwardsWatch.


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