The curse of starring on a TV show that nearly everyone considers a modern classic is that the classic rules of TV-to-movie stardom still apply. For the most part, the boundaries between television and film are far more porous than they’ve ever been, with most contemporary stars willing to bounce between theatrical movies, streaming movies and prestige television. (Only a handful of exceptions spring to mind; the success of Top Gun: Maverick all but ensures that a Tom Cruise character will never grace a TV screen before a robust 45-days theatrical window is up.) Yet this flexibility hasn’t yet resulted in a triumphant film career for, say, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm or The Office’s B.J. Novak, who both had star vehicles play at 2022’s Tribeca Festival.
To be clear, Hamm and Novak have achieved some success on the big screen. Hamm co-stars in the very Cruise vehicle that has helped save everyone’s faith in the theatrical experience; he’s also appeared in some hits (The Town, Baby Driver), the odd underseen indie (Marjorie Prime) and at least one underrated comedy (Keeping Up with the Joneses). Novak has been more scarce in movies, but managed to co-star in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Both actors have worked plenty in other TV shows and Novak continued cultivating a successful writing career.
Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that Novak would attempt to parlay his multi-hyphenate status into a movie he would write, direct and—gulp—star in. For a multimedia bonus, Novak’s Vengeance is actually about—double gulp—podcasting. Novak plays Ben, a callow young New Yorker contributor with his eye on a breakthrough podcast, despite his lack of an actual subject. When he pitches NPR-equivalent producer Eloise (Issa Rae) at a party, she tells him he has more of an idea than a story. Soon, he lucks into a story with a kind of grim fortune: The family of a recently deceased girl he casually knew—one of seemingly dozens of playing-the-field hook-ups—gets in touch with him, under the mistaken impression that he is her long-distance boyfriend. They ignore his delicate (some might say cowardly) attempts to explain their relationship, and he agrees to attend her funeral in small-town Texas—where he finds out that the family believes that she was murdered. Suddenly, Fake NPR is interested, so he decides to stick around and do some investigating.
Novak obviously believes he’s performing some kind of self-interrogation by playing Ben, who is introduced callously justifying his womanizing opposite a character played by John Mayer (who Novak apparently hung out with in real life; must he pay such meticulous tribute to reality, even if it’s supposedly satire?). Ben views the Texans as unsophisticated rubes and, in their conviction that their sweet daughter was a murder victim and not an overdose, they strike him as ripe material for a story about American self-delusion. That Ben himself engages in his share of self-deception is never in doubt; Novak is essentially playing an Ivy League version of Ryan, the intern-turned-corporate-manipulator he brought to life as both writer and performer on The Office. In a leading role, that weaselly respectable-white-boy quality just isn’t very interesting without some greater magnetism. Ben is the kind of part that cries out for someone with a glimmer of salesy showmanship—someone who can sell himself while convincing people around him that he’s an earnest man of ideas. Novak made a fine stealth sidekick in Basterds because he could be quiet and clean-cut opposite Brad Pitt’s grandstanding. In this spotlight, his TV handsomeness turns transparent, and you can see straight through to all of the points Novak is trying to make about himself, or his generation, or whatever.
In spite of Novak’s limitations as an actor and director, Vengeance weaves a compelling mystery, dotted with some substantial laughs. As with the best of The Office, Novak’s writing can poke at arbitrary and self-important systems of perceived power without tediously lionizing the “regular” folks who get caught up in them. (He’s overfond of a cheap trick where he has the various Texas family members be more aware of certain cultural touchstones than Ben expects, but at least he knows to time these revelations for running-gag punchlines.) But the project takes an unavoidably Harvard-brained position: To understand the ills of our time (embodied with faux-self-deprecation by Novak), we must turn to the moral reckoning of a pretty dull guy (also Novak). Is it smart that Novak seems to acknowledge that there’s no real reason for him to star in a movie, or bizarre that he does it anyway?
Hamm, meanwhile, has almost switched places with Novak by starring in Corner Office, a satire of corporate drudgery that feels outmoded by the ubiquity of a certain long-running NBC sitcom. The U.S. remake of The Office may have turned its coworking drones into more of a quirky/cuddly family than they should have been, but there are plenty of later-period Office episodes that have more to say about the quietly oppressive nature of white-collar life than Corner Office, which has the insight and subtlety of an undergraduate’s writing-workshop submission. The film is actually based on a novel called The Room, by Swedish author Jonas Karlsson—which might account for how disconnected it feels from the reality of U.S. corporate dynamics.
Some of that disconnection must be intentional, both thematically and aesthetically, as Orson (Hamm) begins work at a vaguely retro-looking office where employees engage in peculiar corporate rituals and whispery backbiting masked with generic chumminess. Forget The Office; didn’t Severance cover this a few months ago? Of course, that’s this movie’s bad luck, to be shot before a newly beloved TV show snuck in and captured some viewers’ imagination, and despite the sci-fi trappings of Severance, it’s still a more direct and linear experience than Corner Office. It’s easy to understand why director Joachim Back would want to evoke the melancholic, sometimes hard-edged strangeness of Mad Men—which has its own literary, short-story feel—by casting the remarkable (and dashing) Hamm in a schlubbier, more overtly dreamlike reflection of Don Draper. More elliptical is why Hamm agreed to take the part, beyond a desire to knowingly play against type. (Again, the movie feels secondhand: Doesn’t Hamm play with his All-American authority in most of his major parts, Don Draper included?)
As with Vengeance, there may be a kind of actorly false modesty at work here: Look, the attractive and commanding Hamm can play a guy who’s a little paunchy, with an unappealingly out-of-time mustache and unflattering haircut—and who may even be mentally disturbed! Similarly, we’re meant to admire the comic bravery in Novak skewering Ben’s weaknesses, even though that involves him playing a character who sleeps with so many young women that he has them saved in his phone by their identifying attributes. Hamm is at least surrendering himself to other filmmakers and not trying to outfox his own talking points. Corner Office is after something simpler and more poetic: Orson upsets the balance in his workplace, and later finds his groove, by retreating to an unmarked private office that everyone else in the building insists is not really there. The movie’s obviousness, though, limits its poetry, instead indulging in the kind of unreliable-narrator gamesmanship that gives the impression of complexity without actually providing it.
Hamm can play touchingly at-sea, but Orson isn’t actually much of a character, and neither is Novak’s Ben. Both actors have gone from gradually filling in the details of recognizable and specific types (a particular skill-set of TV actors) to playing pure constructs. Absent several seasons’ worth of time to develop, the filmmakers assume there must be a grander statement to be made, and that it needs to be made early, bluntly and often. Vengeance and Corner Office are trying to say something about white men adrift—and in a certain way, they say it all too well.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.