At The Movies With Josh: American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright has been so good in so many films, and it’s not hyperbole to say this is the best thing he’s ever done (it’s also nice that it takes the bad taste out of my mouth from that disastrous film he did earlier this year – Asteroid City).

Director Cord Jefferson adapted Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure” for this provocative satire.

Wright plays a writer named Thelonious Ellison (Monk is his obvious nickname). Much like Robin Williams' character in one of my all time favorite films – The World According to Garp – he’s a good writer whose literary agent respects his work, it just doesn’t sell. Monk is also a professor, and much like the Paul Giamatti character in “The Holdovers” (which, along with this film, will be making my Top 10 of the year), he’s getting frustrated with his students.

He’s also frustrated with the things he sees at a book fair. Author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae, who was also in one of the best movies of last year, “Vengeance”) wrote a bestseller with African-American tropes and stereotypes. When she reads an excerpt from her “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” it makes Monk cringe. Especially since he’s been told his material isn’t “black enough.”

This satire reminded me of one of the best movies of 2018, “Sorry To Bother You.” In that movie, a black telemarketer (LaKeith Stanfield) started to “talk white” and became successful at his job. In “American Fiction” Monk uses the nom de plume “Stagg R. Leigh” to give the publishers what they want. He throws in crazy black cliches and dialogue. The title of the novel, My Pathology, becomes “My Pafology” and eventually, simply one of George Carlin’s naughty words. His agent doesn’t want to even send it out, but figures he’ll send it to a few publishing houses to make his writer happy. Imagine the surprise when this parody novel gets a six-figure offer, and soon  millions for a movie deal once it becomes a bestseller.

Early on in the movie, when we see Monk’s relationship with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), we realize this is a great movie made for adults. They weren’t trying too hard as they banter in a car, talking about the health of their mother and other things going on in their lives.

My wife and I love Sterling K. Brown, and he’s always so sweet when we talk to him at the Critics Choice Awards. He plays Monk’s brother Clifford, who has recently come out of the closet. His character is a bit too over-the-top and the director should’ve toned down his craziness a bit.

There’s a sweet caregiver named Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). We enjoy her story arc. We first see her taking care of their mom Agnes (Leslie Uggams), but she ends up finding a love of her own.

Erika Alexander plays a neighbor, who is also a fan of Monk’s writing. We spend the first half of the movie hoping there’s going to be romance there.

It does feel like most of the supporting cast could’ve been developed a bit better.

There were a lot of thought provoking scenes in this picture, as well as a lot of laughs. I loved a scene where Monk and his agent (John Ortiz) are arguing, because Monk wonders if people will recognize him if he goes out to promote his fake book. It’s explained to him that Hollywood doesn’t read, their assistants read it for them. 

“Hollywood is run on book reports.”

I thought the ending was a bit of a cop-out at first (and reminded me a bit of the conclusion in “Get Shorty”). My wife argued its brilliance, even going so far as to seek out the novel to see how they ended things. And now it doesn’t bother me as much how things wrapped up.

I kept waiting to hear the Lloyd Price song Stagger Lee (or even “This is My Story, This is My Song” by Thelonious Monk, but I digress).

This is one of the best movies of the year, and will garner a few Oscar nominations.

4 stars out of 5.

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