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American Fiction Review

January 15, 2024 | Posted by Rob Stewart
American Fiction Image Credit: Orion Pictures
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American Fiction Review  

I hate waiting for good movies.

Nothing is worse than seeing a trailer for something, knowing instantly that you want to see it, then having to wait months for the movie to release. God be with anyone who cares about the next Planet Of The Apes movie. I’ve been seeing trailers for that for weeks, and it doesn’t come out until Memorial Day! Or, worse yet, you see a trailer, the movie is way off, then you never see the trailer again. So you are left alone with your memory as you try not to let a likely under-the-radar flick come and go without your notice.

That’s what I was afraid was going to happen when I ended up seeing one trailer for the new comedy American Fiction. The ad was great, but it would be weeks before I’d see anything else reminded me of the movie’s existence. I was afraid I’d missed it entirely by the time I saw that second trailer reminded me of it. And even then, I saw ads saying it was “out now”.

Well it turned out that “out now” just meant in a highly limited release, and not playing anywhere near me. I’d end up having to wait until this past weekend before I’d get any showings!

American Fiction stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a doctorate of writing who works as a university professor. The movie starts with his getting put on a leave of absence after upsetting a student, so he goes home to Boston to visit his maladjusted family: his widower mother (his unfaithful father committed suicide in the not-too-distant past), his judgmental sister, and his selfish, just-out-of-the-closet brother.

While in Boston, Monk sees an interview with brand new bestselling author Sintara Golden where she is promoting her new book, “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto”. Monk is taken aback by her stereotypical take on African-American culture in America, even as she is heralded as a brave black voice, telling her readers what it’s like to be black in the U.S.A.

One night while full of contempt for the kind of system that puts his fiction books in African-American Studies sections just because he is black–yet heralds Sintara’s top selling work–Monk decides to pen something even more outrageous than “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto”. He writes the most cliche “black book” he can think of, then turns it in to his agent to shop around. His idea is the publishers will read this book, see what they’ve allowed to be published, and be ashamed of themselves.

Of course, the opposite happens and his book, originally titled “My Pafology” (before hilariously getting a new title mid-movie), blows up and becomes itself a massive bestseller. As it releases to massive acclaim and movie rights are being discussed, Monk has to weigh a new love in his life, tragedy at home, and success he never wanted to determine what the right path to take is.


+ Genuinely funny, movies like this and The Holdovers are why I don’t listen to idiots like Todd Phillips who say you can’t do comedy anymore. Comedy hasn’t died; it’s just transformed. Smart comedy is now blended with other genres. American Fiction is a comedy-drama that relies more heavily on the comedy than the drama, and it entirely works.

Anyway, American Fiction is a wildly funny movie that had my entire theater laughing out loud repeatedly. The laughs last throughout, from the beginning to the riot of an “ending” that you never see coming, but couldn’t have expected to wrap up any other way. And possibly the best line in the whole movie? Three white people outvoting two black people, with their rationale being “It’s just really important that we listen to black voices right now”.

+ Jeffrey Wright is his usual spectacular self, here playing something of a middle-aged curmudgeon who constantly thinks he is the smartest man in the room, but keeps getting outsmarted by everyone dumber than he is. He shifts so well, not just between Monk Ellison and his Stagg R. Lee pseudonym, but even in his personal life. He is bitter and pessimistic in his career, but he proves to be a caring and dedicated member of his family.

He faces tragedy over and over again as his sister dies and his mother begins succumbing to Alzheimer’s, but Monk continues to show love and affection for his mother’s housekeeper, Lorraine, as she prepares to get married. And despite their playfully adversarial relationship, he is warm and caring to his brother, Cliff, as well.

It’s a fantastic performance overall for Wright, and he makes every minute of American Fiction worth watching.

There is a moment in the third act where Monk faces down with Sintara Golden, and he seems to call her out on a bit of hypocrisy on her part. Yet the movie falters a bit here, as it seems to want the viewer to come out of it thinking she won the exchange and that Monk isn’t as clever as he thinks he is. But on screen, that’s not really how it like like it played out. As you watch it, it comes across like Monk wins the argument, but she just talks around his points and then plays a “gotcha” card on him over some misphrasing that he uses. It’s not much, but it feels like it should be a bigger moment where Monk should realize something, but to me, it came across as he proved his point, and she just ignored it.

I’m not sure how much of the movie changes other than its runtime if you leave Monk’s sister, Lisa, out of the screenplay entirely. Her death in the first act is shocking, sure, but if you just have Monk go home to his mother and Lorraine, I feel like you ultimately have the same movie. Tracee Ellis Ross does a great job as Lisa, so this isn’t a slight on her, but the eventual story of mom’s developing Alzheimer’s doesn’t really hinge on Lisa being a character… or even existing at all.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Truly laugh out loud funny, this movie is a blast that feels much shorter than its 117 minute runtime. Jeffrey Wright deserves more awards consideration than he is getting for his nuanced characterization that puts him playing devastated family man, disaffected writer, and self-inflicted alter ego. I really hope American Fiction does not get buried at the box office or in awards season, because it's an absolute treat.

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American Fiction, Rob Stewart