Vengeance suggests plenty of potential in its genre-mixing premise, but frustratingly shakes out exactly as you’d expect at every turn.
It feels like the idea that we live in an increasingly polarized culture that intentionally exacerbates our differences in order to stir up attention, make money, and shift politics would be a ripe one for satire. There’s a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists and feedback loops that tell people only and exactly what they want to hear. Into that particular fray comes comedian and writer B.J. Novak with Vengeance, his directorial debut, about an oblivious “cultural elite” who comes to rural Texas under somewhat false pretenses in order to make a podcast that will allegedly expose these divisions. Hopefully he’ll learn some valuable lessons about empathy and how maybe we’re not all that different, etc.
Novak also stars as Ben, a writer from New York who we’re introduced to in a blisteringly obvious scene in which he and his buddy (John Mayer, for crying out loud) sound off on all the girls they sleep around with, echoing each other’s every sentiment with the phrase “Hundred percent.” Evidently there’s a deeper soul in there, though, as Ben longs to make a firmer imprint. He pitches an idea to a podcasting company run by Louise (Issa Rae) about his theory that technology enables us to inhabit individual cultural bubbles rather than communities, which she dismisses (rightly) as both half-formed and not actually a sufficient narrative thread for a podcast. Lo and behold, that night the story he needs is dropped right into his lap. A frantic phone call from Ty (Boyd Holbrook), the brother of Abilene (Lo Tipton) — one of Ben’s occasional hookups — tells him that Abilene is dead. Ty thinks Ben is her boyfriend. All evidence suggests that she overdosed, but Ty believes she was murdered. And so, Ben heads to Texas to investigate and document.
That seems like a lot for a comedy, but Novak is up to something altogether more earnest. Despite the occasional fish-out-of-water embarrassment (who would dare confuse UT and Texas Tech?), as he slowly insinuates himself into the lives of Abilene’s family and is exposed to the idiosyncrasies of Texas livin’, of course he comes to empathize with the people that have instantly accepted him as one of their own. Along the way, he meets some strange locals and learns that he’s sort of a snobby asshole. If anything’s being satirized, ultimately it’s him, but the critique is so sitcom simple that it remains trite throughout. Individual moments and scenes ring out, like a long speech from a record producer (Ashton Kutcher, MVP) about the philosophical qualities of sound, or a late monologue from Abilene’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron). But law of economy of characters resolves the mystery for the audience early on, and — much like Ben’s initial predicament — without a strong narrative hook those successful scenes just feel like dangling vignettes rather than part of any cohesive whole. Vengeance can’t overcome its own tendency to shake out exactly as you’d expect, which prevents it from becoming as funny or cutting or insightful as it needs to be.