3.5 out of 5 stars

B.J Novak, famous for playing Ryan in the US remake of The Office, makes his directorial debut (which he also wrote) with this shaky satire about the modern American divide. Novak plays pretentious New Yorker columnist Ben Manalowitz, who’s enjoying modern life in the big city and indulging in every millennial cliche. He has a rotation of attractive women on speed dial, and proudly name-drops celebrities like John Mayer, but lacks any real intimacy in his life.

Then, one day, Ben gets a sudden call from the brother of an ex-hook-up informing him she’s been murdered, only the girl’s family appear to believe they were in a committed relationship. Ben sees an opportunity to make the next best true crime podcast from the situation, so, unconcerned about the deceased woman, he calls up producer Eloise (a wasted Issa Rae) and sets about making the next Serial.

Ben flies out to West Texas to attend the late Abilene’s (Lio Tipton) funeral, learning that her family don’t believe the official story she overdosed at a party and instead thinks she was murdered for ulterior motives. Manalowitz doesn’t really care about Abilene or her death, but he does see an opportunity to create an audio narrative about the woes of heartland America—particularly the opioid crisis he theorises was the actual cause of her death. However, Ben is forced to play along with Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) because he’s socially tone deaf, pro-gun, and believes in crackpot theories found on the internet.

Vengeance is half murder-mystery with Ben pulling on various threads, and half a fish-out-of-water tale about the divide within the US. The satire works well, even if the screenplay is a little too in favour of upper-crust Manhattan natives and a bit too cruel to gun-toting Republicans. Despite the political clash, Abilene’s family open up their home and their hearts to Ben, yet we’re supposed to see them as villains.

Abilene’s eccentric family are the highlight, even if they’re underused in favour of musing about the merits of the podcast. Her mother, Sharon (Succession’s J. Smith-Cameron), her younger brother ‘El Stupido’ (newcomer Elli Abrams Bickel), and his sisters Jasmine and Paris (Descendants‘ Dove Cameron and Alex Strangelove’s Isabella Amara) are all clichéd unworldly Texans given layers by the performances overcoming thin characterisations. Granny Carole (Longmire’s Louanne Stephens) is a particular standout, taking a role that could’ve so easily been a Meemaw from Hillbilly Elegy parody without Stephens adding graceful humour to her eccentric grandmother.

Texas isn’t a real place for Ben, it’s a fantasy land filled with yeeha cowboys and tumbleweeds. Whilst the Shaw family’s set up to be uncouth dinosaurs of the redneck Wild West, they’re actually smart and kind, even if they never get the resolution they deserve. Smith-Cameron’s Sharon gets her moment in a parking lot of a fast-food joint, showcasing the whip-smart intelligence behind the piercing blues eyes and Texan drawl. It’s a shame she only really gets her one moment as a grieving mother seeking revenge for the unimaginable pain of losing her eldest daughter.

Novak’s Manalowitz is the clichéd clueless and obnoxious liberal yet the film feels too sympathetic to his millennial traits. His character doesn’t particularly learn any lessons, nor does he feel inclined to change. He almost starts to reflect on his own unkindness, but the plot soon drifts another way. The family are the heart of Manalowitz’s brain, and Vengeance perhaps needed a little bit more heart.

The script is genuinely funny and manages to get jokes out of both classes of people in the film, with funny stuff about the WhataBurger fast-food chain, Ben’s behaviour at a rodeo, and if saying cultural appropriations is cultural appropriation in itself. It’s all safe laughs that barely scrape the political and cultural divide, but Novak’s script is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Sure, it could’ve been pushed further with the family and Ben’s lack of real-life skills, but what’s here lands.

In other places, Vengeance feels like a pretentious podcast from your worst nightmares. The local music producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher in a sinister but dashing white cowboy suit) exists purely to deliver smarmy soundbites about how and why conspiracy mania took over the US heartland. Issa Rae’s producer at the end of the phone is used as nothing more than a soundboard for the male lead, and not using Rae’s experience as a black woman in America feels like a huge miss when casting such a talented and intelligent actress.

Vengeance is an uneven but generally enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy about disjointed 21st-century America. It feels like Novak’s trying to use the crime podcast angle to satirise the mythology of a decaying Middle America and explore a creative existential crisis. Instead, we get an enjoyable ad genuinely funny satire on the class divide, the appetite for true crime and the trend of looking for conspiracy theories in everyday tragedies.


frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

writer & director: B.J Novak.
starring: B.J Novak, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron, Issa Rae & Ashton Kutcher.