Movie review

Attention. A major new filmmaking talent has arrived on the scene, and his name is B.J. Novak.

People may know him as that guy from “The Office” where he played Ryan Howard. He was also a writer for that long-running series. But with “Vengeance,” his directing debut, he instantly establishes himself as a first-rate, multifaceted moviemaker. In addition to directing the picture, he wrote the screenplay and plays the lead character, a guy named Ben Manalowtiz. He aces each role.

It’s a detective story. It’s an insightful commentary on the state of us, which is to say us, the U.S., in this divided, disjointed, distracted age. It’s a comedy, sharp and frequently hilarious. 

It is, above all, consistently surprising. Every time you think you’ve got a fix on a character, Novak changes things up: Wait. What? Didn’t see that coming. 

Novak’s character is a New York writer-hipster, a guy very full of himself whose relationships are legion and centered in the world of social media. His phone is constantly dinging and pinging with messages from his many hookups. This makes for a funny opening scene where the dings and pings are fed onto the soundtrack in an almost subliminal fashion that leaves the audience wondering, “Say, is that my phone going off?” 

Until out of the ether comes a hoarse, anguished male voice informing him that the love of Ben’s life has suddenly died. To which Ben’s response is: Who? 

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He has almost no recollection of the woman the voice on the phone (it’s her brother) is talking about. She was just one of ever so many fleeting encounters, long forgotten. 

But the voice is insistent and before he knows it Ben is in Texas, standing at her graveside, delivering her eulogy under the vast Texas sky with family and a preacher in a black cowboy hat hanging on his every awkward, faux-sensitive word. He put the tribute together on the fly, using scraps of info blurted by her grieving brother (Boyd Holbrook) as his source material. Again, very funny. 

And so the detective story begins. He wants to find out who this stranger was and why she thought he meant so much to her. He goes to her social media posts to try to piece the picture together. He does this for a podcast he’s pitched to an influential producer-friend of his (Issa Rae) back in New York. With digital recorder in hand, he wades deep into the heart of Texas with the woman’s close-knit family serving as his hosts and unwitting guides in the world of Texas arcana. Deep-fried Twinkies, rodeo and gun culture are all stirred into the mix.

The brother believes his sister was murdered, maybe by a drug cartel, and wants Ben to help him track down the killers and wreak vengeance upon them. Ben has no wish to behave like someone in a Liam Neeson movie, but feels he has to play along. What’s more, he doesn’t believe the woman was murdered. He thinks that’s a conspiracy theory. 

The most enigmatic and influential character he meets is a music producer played by Ashton Kutcher. It’s a career-defining performance. The character is a keen observer, an astute commentator and a smooth-talking cynic. He’s Texas to the bone yet stands slightly outside the culture to acknowledge its flaws. 

Novak handles the demands of writer and director with seeming effortless ease. His dialogue is acute, the performances he draws from his fellow actors are all first rate and his direction is supremely assured.

Some of the humor is overbroad as in a segment where Ben claims not to know who triumphed at the Alamo (no sentient American is that clueless). But though he ventures now and again into stereotypes, he presents most of his characters in ultimately a sympathetic light. He’s hardest on Ben, who declares himself “a self-absorbed know-it-all.” But the guy is no dummy, and in his search for the truth about the dead woman he gains critical insights into himself.

“Vengeance” ★★★★ (out of four)

With B.J. Novak, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron. Directed by B.J. Novak. 107 minutes. Rated R for language and brief violence. Opens July 29 at multiple theaters.

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