‘Vengeance’ review: B.J. Novak’s Texas murder film tries to do too much

“Vengeance” is a movie about making a podcast while solving a murder mystery. How novel! 

Or it would be, were it not for the better Hulu comedy series “Only Murders in the Building,” which has a similar premise and is releasing new episodes at the very same time.

movie review

Running time: 94 minutes. Rated R (language and brief violence). In theaters.

Where B.J. Novak’s (“The Office”) promising-if-overcrowded directorial debut tries to differentiate itself from the Steve Martin/Martin Short show is its fish-out-of-water theme. 

Novak also wrote and stars in the movie as Ben Manalowitz, a neurotic New Yorker (and a writer for the New Yorker) who reluctantly jets off to the farthest reaches of Texas after he learns that a girl he had been hooking up with is dead.

The woman, Abilene, told her wacky Texas family that Ben was her devoted boyfriend, and they naturally want him to fly in for her funeral. We’re, at first, led to believe “Vengeance” is a film about the awful things piggish men do to women, like sleep with a bunch and then deceive them. But not all is as it seems.

When Ben arrives in the Lone Star State, Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) insists that the tragic situation is fishy and that his sis was actually killed — and together they must nab the murderer. 

“I don’t avenge deaths,” says Ben in a Woody Allen-ish way. “It’s just not who I am!”

But the fame-hungry writer commits to the vigilante cause and works with a podcast producer friend (Issa Rae) back in NYC to turn the story into a hit series.

The Shaw family in Texas loves Whataburger.
Courtesy of Patti Perret / Focus

The idea is OK, but all the “Green Acres”-style city-versus-country commentary in the satire is tired. Abilene’s little brother, for example, is only called El Stupido (Eli Bickel). And all the family likes to talk about is their love of Whataburger. Everybody’s got a gun, everybody wears cowboy boots, everybody cries about the Alamo, yippee-ki-yay. We half expect Ben to sing, “Darling, I love you but give me Park Avenue!”

There are darker, more relevant threads. During Ben’s investigation, he learns about a popular hangout spot in the desert called “The Afterparty” where drug overdose deaths are common, and which brings to mind the opioid addiction epidemic.

He later learns that Abilene was a talented, aspiring singer and meets her sleazy pal Quentin (Ashton Kutcher), a small-time record producer.  

Ben (B.J. Novak, right) questions Quentin (Ashton Kutcher) about the murder of Ben’s sometime girlfriend.
Courtesy of Patti Perret/Focus F

The half-baked whodunit aspect, however, is un-involving. As Ben becomes more absorbed in and open to the regional quirks of Texas life, we completely stop caring who might have killed this woman and stare off into beautiful horizons. The supporting characters, unlike “Only Murders,” aren’t eccentric or mysterious enough to grab us. 

Novak’s forever-skill as an actor is likability, and that approachable magnetism is on display here. What doesn’t work in this otherwise naturalistic movie are the punchlines he’s written for himself. Too planned and stilted, not terribly funny. The huge size of all the actors’ humor never matches the intimate way the film has been shot.

Nonetheless, there are glimmers of directing talent here. Novak’s off-camera career isn’t Texas Toast just yet.