American Fiction (2023)

The price is write

American Fiction, the debut film by Cord Jefferson, fills in one of my favorite niches, one that could always use more films: Modestly smart dramedies about the modestly interesting interior lives of modestly smart people. It’s centered around a neurotic and slightly off-putting but ultimately charming protagonist. It’s essentially an early Woody Allen movie but with a Black hero instead of a Jewish one.

The film, adapted from the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, has a fun, satirical premise: a well-educated, upper-middle-class Black writer named Monk Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) gets so frustrated by the popularity of works by Black authors that pander to white audiences with stereotypes of poverty and crime that he creates an absurdly over-the-top parody, only for it to treated as genuine and become a bestseller.

But this premise is also not really what American Fiction is about; it’s instead a character study of Ellison’s depression and grief with his family’s growing losses as he tries to find some connection and meaning in a world that feels empty. And yet it’s not quite so dark as that pitch makes it seem, either, so I’m not sure the best way to classify it.

American Fiction has a remarkably light touch that makes it easy to like: It doesn’t push too hard on the satire, instead letting it act as flavor and dressing. It’s not too bleak in its drama; though it’s filled with sadness and loss for Monk, it never wallows in his misery. It rarely leans too hard into a joke, avoiding broad punchlines and wackiness, yet still never goes more than a scene or two without a great joke. It’s a marvelous balancing act of tones. Just a terrific piece of comic finesse.

The cast does a lot to carry the material: I’ve never liked Wright more than this — his exhausted disdain for a world that lets him down again and again is hysterical every time. I’m glad he’s up for the Oscar — this is one of my favorite performances of the year. He’s surrounded by a phenomenal ensemble: Erika Alexander plays his new girlfriend with warmth; Leslie Uggams is perfectly acerbic as his dementia-ridden mom; and Tracee Ellis Ross is mind-blowingly good in a way-too-small role as his sister. (She has about 10 total lines, and every single one is memorable.) I’m also very fond of Sterling K. Brown’s turn as Monk’s gay, alcoholic brother, who not only displays some hilarious physical comedy but gets to deliver the film’s key dramatic monologue towards the end of the movie.

Generating a lot of laughs will cover up most flaws. The film’s biggest problem is the shagginess and lack of punch in its storytelling, but it doesn’t bother me too much. The story pivots away from some of the richest points of drama and conflict just as they start to get good, like the simmering resentment between Monk and Coraline (Alexander) as he grows more successful. It also pulls its punches on the dark irony and self-loathing of Monk’s going up anonymously for a literary award that he’s serving as judge for. This hesitation in following through on its setup is most obvious in the ending, which is the only point of the film that stumble over its own cleverness, presenting a bunch of different possible endings to the story with a meta twist. (To compare the film to Woody Allen again, it’s the kind of self-deprecating ending he would have knocked out of the park. Here it’s a little soft.)

One film that American Fiction made me think of frequently is Get Out: Both films take aim at the casual, unconscious racism of liberal, well-educated white people. (And if I may be cynical for a moment, I suspect some of the praise heaped upon both films comes from critics who, consciously or subconsciously, want to prove they’re not “one of them.”)

The racial satire is, frankly, underwhelming and outdated: I’m not sure exactly what targets Jefferson had in mind, but they were probably big in the ’90s. (If he had been targeted film, on the other hand, it would have clicked a little more: stories about poor Black people still get a lot of award buzz.) At a minimum, it feels very much pre-2020. A common observation, which I agree with, is that a post-2020 version of this story could have targeted the white-oriented “anti-racism” books that shot up bestseller lists. But, crucially — unlike some less successful satire movies from the past few years, including Not Okay and The Blackening — the film isn’t really dependent upon the satire for the film to work.

American Fiction is, overall, a really delightful film and one of the best debuts of 2023. I don’t think it quite gets far enough to earn that Best Picture nomination, but it honestly places in the year’s top ten measured purely in terms of my enjoyment. With a cast, script, and comic tonal control this good, I can’t wait to see what Jefferson does next.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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