This “Office” alum makes a comical and patient directorial debut
BJ Novak has earned a name for himself, starting off with his role of Ryan Howard on “The Office,” and earned some other roles in movies like “Inglorious Basterds” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” Now, he makes his directorial debut of “Vengeance,” a dark comedy with an awkward and honest sense of humor. It shares its love for journalism and the state of Texas. Somehow, it becomes and interesting combo through the eyes of Novak.
Novak plays a journalist and podcaster for the New Yorker named Ben Manalowitz, who is in the middle of trying to figure out the story of his career, one his podcast producer and editor Eloise (Issa Rae) can really call outstanding. Then, out of the blue, he receives a phone call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), who is the brother of a girl he previously hooked up with named Abilene (Lio Tipton). She just passed away from an alleged drug overdose, but her brother and family knows she was murdered, since she’s never touched a pill in her life. They also think that Ben was close to the girl, and that’s when Ty asks him to help track down her killer, and this could be the story of Ben’s career.
He records the conversations with the family, which includes Abilene and Ty’s sisters-Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), both of whom have their own dreams of fame-and their youngest brother nicknamed El Stupido (Eli Bickel), when if he isn’t Mexican. They all agree to be part of the story, as they see him as family. There’s also the dead girl’s record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), who saw great things in her, and a drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who also knew her.
Some of the gags are literal, like how Ben asks Jasmine how she takes her coffee, and she responds: “In the mouth.” And there’s also a scene when the rest of the family share their love for a special burger joint, and all the journalist gets out of their reason for their love for it is that they just love it.
Other scenes regard him adapting to Texas customs and mannerisms. These residents have their own views on life and activities, while Ben tries his best to acknowledge them. He doesn’t want to insult anyone by calling anyone stupid, although there’s a scene when he is called a “condescending a**hole,” when he tells a rodeo crowd what the difference between a “rider” and a “writer.”
Sure, it can be conflicting at times, but the movie also tries to grasp what the main character wants out of this story. Ben is trying to get himself up in the game, and he’s basically thinking about himself. But he may be able to change because of the kindness and eccentricity of the family he meets. Novak delivers as both the actor and filmmaker, who knows the stakes of balancing all positions.
He also casts Hoydbrook, Tipton, Kutcher, and Rae, among others, in roles so interesting and eclectic, that they can easily be studied at Novak’s patience. The story is able to act like a mystery without being so tedious or derivative. It’s more about the true nature of what this would-be “story of the year” can bring out of Ben. It ends up being kind of sweet.
“Vengeance” is an impressive film directorial debut for him, because of the laughs, passion for journalism, and what the mystery can unfold. If you loved Novak as Ryan Howard, you’ll love him as Ben Manalowitz.