American Fiction (2023)
American Fiction (2023)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: December 22nd, 2023 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Cord Jefferson Actors: Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Leslie Uggams, Raymond Anthony Thomas

 


 

“I

just find that word really offensive.” “Delicate” students repeatedly cause disruptions and raise issues with the higher-ups over Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s (Jeffrey Wright) classes, which examine controversial, hot-button topics – and language. He’s direct and unapologetic, interested only in getting to the root of uncomfortable stories and potent discussions. But the bosses at his Los Angeles school feel otherwise; they impose mandatory time off, forcing Thelonious to return to his family in Boston, where he attends meager book festivals as he waits for word about his latest novel (he hasn’t been published in years) from his agent (John Ortiz).

After he attends a panel for authors that is woefully sparse, he visits an adjacent, packed room to hear an excerpt read by overnight sensation Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) – whose successful new book, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” capitalizes on the stereotypical existences of poor black communities and the demand for this type of “representative” material. This is much to the chagrin of Monk, who despises the notion that as a black man, his works need to reflect and sound as if he’s specifically employing those very same, marketable stereotypes – or risk that no publisher will touch his material. “The blackest thing about this one is the ink!” he yells at a bookstore clerk when he discovers his own novels are filed under “African-American Studies,” which is incredibly far from the intellectual, analytical writing he excels at. Meanwhile, he must also contend with the financial burdens and familial dramas of his sympathetic sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), his distant brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), and their increasingly forgetful mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams).

The dialogue is instantly hilarious and clever. As it satirizes a sensitive subject, it does so with an exceptional keenness for comedic timing; even when various tragedies strike, the script doesn’t stray too far from its humorousness. Philosophical asides; the unveiling of edgy truths about who consumes literature and what their expectations are; and meditations on grief, accomplishments, and love are also earnest yet tinged with laughs. “American Fiction’s” tale is curiously realistic, despite clearly poking fun at its central subject (including assumptions about black authors and the potential reductive nature of lucrative stories by the corrupted publishing system – taking shots at likeminded Hollywood, too), which arises as a criticizing protest when Monk writes a trashy book featuring gangsters, drugs, violence, and police confrontations that turns out to attract a wealth of sincere attention.


As sharp as it all is, it’s not subtle; the most poignant commentary is spoken aloud, leaving little to be gleaned by discerning viewers. Even sequences that wryly raise examples of prejudices and racism grow blatant and carefully spelled-out – including the almost too obvious revelations about hastily-judged characters and the mockery of Monk’s purposely ludicrous ideas gaining more and more positive reactions. Of course, if this continual, catering series of explanations is intentional, perhaps it’s just that much better; if the entirety of the movie is itself an example of pandering, perhaps the reiterations are exactly by design, though it never feels quite like it is. “The dumber I behave, the richer I get.”

Even with the intelligence of the screenplay, combining laugh-out-loud scenes with sentimental notions of acceptance, the oddly standard rom-com premise (in which a comedic predicament gets out of hand to the point that a sensible solution feels unattainable) tends to get in the way of the more authentic components. At times, it either needs to escalate the silliness or ease off of it to match the down-to-earth drama; the shifting tone often creates a sense of two disparate movies weaving back and forth. Nevertheless, Wright is superb, giving a sensational performance that mines the best from both the wit and the heart. Plus, the music (by Laura Karpman) is impressively fitting, while the conclusion is an absolute win, vacillating between the worst possible ending and the best, reiterating the hilarity of preconceived notions and audience expectations. “This has gone too far.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10