By Alison Lanier | Film | July 21, 2022 |
By Alison Lanier | Film | July 21, 2022 |
B.J. Novak’s directorial debut, Vengeance, takes direct aim at the self-soothing, self-flattering narratives we tell ourselves to make our lives make sense—and it does this by taking aim at the exploitative, flexible production of true-crime stories for mass consumption. Ben (played by Novak) is shielded by his jaded, pretentious assumptions from confronting people for who they are; he conveniently navigates the New York literary scene with the certainty that he has all the answers. His narrative of himself is of a successful New Yorker writer who is about to make it big in podcasts, as he drunkenly pitches his high-level ideas about a podcast to define America to an exasperated producer, Eloise (Issa Rae), at a ubiquitous New York party.
Then the story drops into Ben’s lap: one of his many hookups, Abilene (Lio Tipton), has been murdered near her family home in Texas … and the family thinks Ben was her devoted boyfriend. He infiltrates the family, whom he at first perceives as painful Texas stereotypes: isolated and ignorant, a neat binary contrast to Ben’s own self-perception. He’s entirely unaware that he presents as a painful stereotype himself, the condescending New York intellectual with nothing left to learn, who wants his fairground Twinkies not fried but grilled.
In the course of his investigation, he gradually connects with Ty (Boyd Holbrook), Abilene’s brother; her other siblings Paris (Isabella Amara), Jasmine (Dove Cameron), and Mason (Eli Bickel); her guru-ish music producer Quentin (Ashton Kutcher); and with Abilene herself via the many family videos and recordings she left behind. His head canon versions of the people around him waver, making way for a more intimate and profound experience of their lives.
The working title of his podcast, “Dead White Girl,” is a good parallel for the movie as a whole: we begin with a pre-fabricated narrative, a true-crime formulation. But the podcast title changes again and again. Everybody’s stories are unstable: they totter, crack, and meld under any real scrutiny, if you’re willing to put the scrutiny in. I was frankly relieved when scenes emerged that specifically broke down Ben’s assumptions, as when he pretentiously tries to explain Chekov’s gun to Paris in connection to gun culture, who in turn points out that Chekov only included a gun in one of his plays and that she knows how to not have a gun go off.
B.J. Novak has always been able to write; we all know this. Turns out Novak has directing chops too. Or should I say more all-around filmmaking chops?
However: there’s a “but” coming. There’s a sense in the movie that the brutal truth that it’s trying to get at is safely sheltered under museum glass: it’s too clean, too precise. The revelation and devastation aimed at Ben doesn’t quite land. I have the distinct sense that Novak didn’t belong in front of the camera on this project. The vision and force were there, but there was something diluted about it. The eye-opening moments of connection were precisely delivered but didn’t feel like they had soul behind them. I had the impression that Novak’s attention was on scene, direction, production, and others’ performances … and that was reflected in the relative hollowness of Novak’s own screen presence.
If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am. All the ingredients are there. Novak knows how to make a movie, the beats to hit, the character turns that endear and evolve the people we grow to love onscreen. There are a number of small, wonderful touches: Abby’s grandmother’s little declaration of unsmiling affection in the Whataburger, the killer dropping their Texan accent entirely in the course of their confession as they talk about the nature of American political discourse. The audience laughed along at all the right moments. From an uncritical, moviegoing perspective, it’s a worthwhile trip to the theater.
But Novak as the lead character feels like a step too far: the character is real, but Novak’s attention is … not exactly scattered, but a bit too self-conscious. The film’s honesty seems hindered by Novak’s awareness that he is standing in front of the camera, that it’s his face that has to convey the story. He’s certainly equal to the role he set himself, but not all the roles of assembling this ambitious project.
Bottom line: the film works. Novak has set off on a course that works for him. While this is definitely a first film, it’s a solid one, and one from which I think lessons will be learned. I sincerely hope there’s another filmmaking project in Novak’s future, and I’m excited to see how this new path unfolds for him.