‘American Fiction’ Review: Jeffrey Wright Shines in Satirical Brilliance

‘American Fiction’ Review: Jeffrey Wright Shines in Satirical Brilliance: Could Cord Jefferson and Jeffrey Wright emerge as the contemporary Scorsese and De Niro? Undoubtedly, there’s a special dynamic unfolding between the debut director and the seasoned star in “American Fiction.”

Jefferson skillfully adapts Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” into a razor-sharp satirical comedy (★★★½ out of four; rated R; currently in theaters in New York, LA, and Austin, expanding Dec. 22). The film adeptly skewers Black storytelling tropes, delving into themes of race, pop culture, celebrity, and identity. While Wright’s portrayal as the film’s delightfully irascible lead adds a humorous touch, Jefferson intertwines a dysfunctional family drama that not only enhances the hilarity but also provides emotional depth.

Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a cantankerous California academic who manages to irk both students and fellow faculty members. Despite being a struggling writer, his works find a place in the African-American Studies section of bookstores, even as he contends with a store clerk, stating, “The Blackest thing about this one is the ink.”

As his frustration with the world intensifies, Monk becomes increasingly exasperated when his agent (John Ortiz) reveals that editors are seeking a “Black” literary work. This sentiment is exacerbated when Monk attends a Boston book festival, where the spotlight is on Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), the author of a best-selling novel laden with Black stereotypes titled “We’s Lives in the Da Ghetto.”

Reaching his wit’s end, Monk decides to embrace chaos and, as a jest, pens a book featuring deadbeat dads, rappers, crack, and other stereotypical “Black stuff” under the pseudonym “Stagg R. Leigh.” Although his agent is less than amused, both are astounded when a publishing house expresses enthusiasm for the work. The novel generates considerable buzz in the literary world, with discussions of a potential movie deal. However, complications arise when Monk must grapple with the challenge of promoting the work of a “wanted fugitive.”

Simultaneously, as these events unfold, Monk’s sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) informs him that their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), is displaying signs of dementia. Monk takes on a more prominent role in providing assistance to their dispersed family, including reconnecting with his estranged gay brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown). Finding a confidante in next-door neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), Monk’s burgeoning romance faces challenges due to his literary charade and escalating ego.

In various films such as “The Batman,” “The French Dispatch,” and this year’s “Asteroid City” and “Rustin,” Jeffrey Wright, an Emmy and Tony winner, consistently elevates the movie with his presence, typically in a pivotal supporting role. While Monk could potentially be portrayed as unlikable, Wright infuses the character with intelligence, a sarcastic wit, underlying vulnerability, and a well-meaning soul. As Monk initially criticizes but later comprehends the choices fellow artists must make, Wright’s performance adds depth to the character. Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown also deliver standout performances, serving as both Monk’s professional and personal foils.

The engaging lines and interactions, often humorous, occasionally acerbic, and consistently thoughtful, are crafted by Cord Jefferson. “Fiction” establishes the former TV writer (“The Good Place,” “Watchmen”) as an emerging cinematic voice to watch. Jefferson adeptly balances Monk’s fictional novel antics, including a clever scene where the writer engages with his book’s main characters, along with the familial conflicts. His insightful social commentary covers a broad spectrum, joyfully satirizing various people and situations, while making poignant observations about the stereotyping of Black artists and the significance of individuality. The narrative takes a wild turn in the final act as the film embraces a more meta nature, but Jefferson expertly brings it home with a pitch-perfect final gesture.

“American Fiction” is a narrative that is both provocative and gratifying, featuring a stellar director/actor duo that proves to be genuinely exceptional.

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