AMERICAN FICTION – A Review by Cynthia Flores
American Fiction is Cord Jefferson’s hilarious and touching directorial debut which confronts our culture’s obsession with reducing people to outrageous stereotypes as well as telling an intimate family story.
This movie is the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffery Wright). Named after the Jazz legend. He Is a disgruntled college professor who is not politically correct and does not care to be. On top of all that, he is a frustrated novelist who is fed up with the publishing establishment. He sees publishers jumping on the bandwagon and profiting from “Black” entertainment that relies on tired and offensive stereotypes.
After Monk blows up during class and something he says is taken out of context, he’s urged to take a sabbatical. This leads him back home to reconnect with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor dealing with her divorce. It is then that he realizes that his mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams) has gotten worse concerning her dementia. Due to a sudden tragedy in the family, Monk has to spend time with his younger brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown). Clifford is a successful plastic surgeon whose family life has imploded now that he’s out of the closet. He says he can’t stick around to help with Mom because he’s got to get back to his practice. Leaving Monk the only one available to stay with her and the housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), who is more a family member than just an employee.
During all this, Monk’s latest book is declined by all the publishers because they want something “Blacker” to print, much like the new book from Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae) who is a well-educated author but writes in the vernacular of the streets.
To prove his point that the publishers no longer want good writing, a drunken Monk uses a pen name to write an outlandish “Black” book of his own. As a joke, he sends it to his publisher, Arthur (John Ortiz), and asks him to shop it around. To prove his point about how low the bar has gotten. It is immediately a hit.
That book propels Monk into the heart of hypocrisy and the madness he claims to hate because it comes with buckets of money. Money he needs to help take care of his mother Agnes who needs a special and expensive living facility to help her with her declining mind. Monk is dealing with all this as he falls in love with Coraline (Erika Alexander), a smart and loving lawyer he meets in the neighborhood of his family’s beach house.
Monk faces a lot of challenges to his integrity and his need to make a living as a writer.
It’s hard to believe this is director Cord Jefferson’s first film to direct because of how good it is. He brought out an award-worthy performance from his leading man Jeffery Wright and gave veteran actress Leslie Uggams a chance to show off her acting chops. As a writer, he’s won fame and an Emmy for things he’s written. He co-wrote this film with novelist Percival Everett. Based on Everett’s 2001 book Erasure. Coming from a writing background, Jefferson’s dialogue in the film has a natural feeling while intelligently showing totally absurd situations in the writing world. Yet the other part of the film dealing with Monk’s family dynamics is written with a relatable bittersweet tenderness.
I felt like I was watching two films at once. One wacky and comedic, about the craziness that Monk has gotten himself into by penning this book under someone else’s name and persona. And the other film is a rich and textured family drama filled with love and self-discovery.
The genius of American Fiction is that the director never gets bogged down by either of the storylines. By doing a balancing act between the two themes the audience never gets tired of the razor-sharp jokes that are being shown about the writing and entertainment industry of today. For example, the moment the jokes die down, the film shifts gears into a smooth and touching story of family. Cord’s storytelling abilities are razor-sharp and full of wit in the funny parts and when dealing with family matters, they are as smooth as an expensive glass of whiskey. It goes down well and if you have enough of it, you’ll tear up with sentimentality.
I give American Fiction 5 stars. It’s going to be on the top ten list for this year’s films and should rack up a few Oscar nominations along the way as well. It is not just a one-joke film like the trailer leads you to believe. So, check out this film in theaters and find out what everyone will be talking about this season.
Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Written by: Cord Jefferson, Percival Everett
Selig Rating: 5 Stars
Running Time: 117 min
Wide Theatrical Release: December 15th
Starring: Jeffery Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, with Issa Rea and Sterling K. Brown
The Selig Rating Scale:
5 Stars – Excellent movie/show, well worth the time and price.
4 Stars – Good movie/show
3 Stars – OK movie/show
2 Stars – Well, there was nothing else…
1 Star – Total waste of time.