Novak clearly poured his heart and soul into this story, which works hard to try to show Americans that, to understand each other, we need more compassion and connection and fewer snap judgments. Using comedy, mystery, and self-deprecating humor, Novak's Ben sets out confidently to show why people are prone to believe conspiracy theories. But what he learns is that while he may be more formally educated than many of the folks in Abby's Texas town, that doesn't make him better -- in fact, he may be worse. Prejudice starts with not understanding someone who's different from you, and Vengeance helps to put in perspective that different is simply that: different.
Novak's sweat is all over the screen here. Choosing to star in the first feature you've also written and directed is a lot to bite off for your first chew. He may have benefited from having some distance from all three of the top above-the-line roles. He proves himself as an actor's director, eliciting memorable performances from his actors, including John Mayer's hysterical and self-mocking turn as Ben's womanizing wingman. Each member of the cast delivers standout work, most of all Ashton Kutcher, who's so fantastic as small-town music producer Quentin Sellers that it's impossible to see anyone else wearing the character's cleavage-torn white T-shirt, scarf, and white suit and pulling it (or the role) off. Quentin says to Ben at one point that "nobody writes anything original, we just translate." In Vengeance, Novak translates New York City and Texas culture with such accuracy in strokes both broad and specific that it's hilarious rather than offensive -- and even if you don't totally get it, it's still funny. Meanwhile, big chunks of dialogue are overfull of "wisdom" to spew at viewers -- wise words that Novak probably intended as quotes destined for wall art. But the messages fly so fast that it's nearly impossible to catch and process them. Still, that's a small quibble, as is the movie's inconsistent sound quality. The biggest issue, though, is the ending, which just doesn't ring true for Ben -- at least, for Ben as played by Novak. It's the one time that Novak taking on three large roles in the production seems to be a problem, as Ben becomes Novak's fantasy version of himself rather than the more believable version of himself that he plays throughout the film. Or, perhaps this is because his message is too effective: If he's begging viewers to truly see people for their whole selves, we can't help but see him through his character and through his work. Better said through the words of Abilene Shaw, "heart sees heart."