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Review: 'American Fiction'

Make no mistake, American Fiction is one of the best movies of 2023.  So many people raved about it that I was almost afraid to see it, fearing that it could never live up to all the praise and hype.

I was so wrong.

It is a movie that delivers on comedy and biting social commentary from the opening scene to the final credits. It is insightful, topical and very relevant, and it wastes no time in steering down the path of volatile political incorrectness.

The story begins with the protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright) in a university classroom with a small group of students.  The “N word” --that is to say, the unspeakable word that “N word” stands for—is written on a dry erase board behind him.  When one of the students voices her objection to the use of the word, Monk tries to explain his academic rationale underlying the use of the word and its discussion in class.  In quick succession, the student storms out of the classroom in tears, he is reprimanded for the incident by his faculty supervisors and is told to take some time off.

He does just that, returning to his home and reuniting with what’s left of his family including his aging mother (played by Leslie Uggams) and siblings, played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown.

Monk is a struggling author drowning in issues that make him difficult to like.  The family tensions are the basis of some great comedy from the start.  The dialog is well-written.  The characters are well-defined.

American Fiction is a real tour de force from writer and first-time director Cord Jefferson who deserves an Oscar for his work here.  It is one of those modestly budgeted movies that seems to come out of nowhere every year to capture the hearts and minds of moviegoers and movie critics alike.  It is a gem.

Without delving into the story too much and giving away the joy of the plot revelations and narrative discovery, let’s just say that Monk’s disgruntled disposition is the key to the storyline.

He seems to be a talented writer who can’t seem to get noticed, much to his dismay and that of his agent.

He snaps one day and decides to write a fake, foul-mouthed novel (using a fake author’s name) with the “F-word” as the title.  Again, not “F-word” but the word that “F-word” stands for. 

His agent has serious doubts about the blatantly offensively book and his client’s sanity, but much to their shock and surprise, they find that the publishers love, love, love it.

It becomes a best seller.  And, in a moment of sublime irony, Monk finds himself on a board of critics that has to decide on a short list of novels being selected as the best books of the year.  The short list includes the “F-word” book he secretly authored. He finds himself attacking the integrity of his own best-selling book and begging his colleagues to toss it out of the running.

In a very broad sense, American Fiction goes down the road of the Mel Brooks play (and two movie adaptations in 1967 and 2005) The Producers, with someone deliberately trying to create a piece of creative trash that is intended to fail, but succeeds anyway, dragging everyone involved into a vortex of comedic insanity.

This plotline is one of many which also veer off into his relationships with his family members and the attractive woman who lives across the street from his family’s vacation home.

The comedy works on every single level of American Fiction.  It deserves Academy Awards recognition for the writing and directing as well as the acting.  You could throw in some technical recognition as well.

There is a lot of jazz music in the soundtrack though surprisingly, none of it is by Thelonious Monk.  While it is an interesting exclusion, in the end It’s no big deal. The music works.

Everything in American Fiction works.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable film that entertains you and makes you think.  It’s the best kind of comedy—the kind that isn’t shy about tackling topics that most other movies choose to sidestep, and it does so with intelligence, thoughtfulness and unbridled energy.


Photo Credits: Claire Folger


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