Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, AMERICAN FICTION is being sold as a scabrous take-down of modern politically correct sensibilities. It is that, but also so much more.
Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) stars as Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, a tenured academic railing against the sensitivities of his Gen Z students, and the moronity of a publishing industry that wants to cage all black authors in the prison of poverty porn, rather than accepting that they can write a variety of stories.
Monk returns home to Boston and realises his outwardly wealthy and successful family is in crisis. His sister (Tracee Ellis Ross, Blackish) is divorced and weary of caring for their mother, his brother (Sterling K Brown, This Is Us) is manically embracing his new gay identity, and his mother is declining into dementia. Desperate for money and outraged at the commercial success of a nakedly exploitative book by his rival (Issa Rae, Insecure), Monk pens an equally trashy novel that predictably becomes a wild success. For the first time in his life, his alter-ego is selling well, optioned for a movie, and appeasing the consciences of rich white people. Monk hates it, hates himself, and hates all those being duped by his ruse, including his new girlfriend. The question is how this will resolve.
There is much to admire in Cord Jefferson's first directorial feature. It is genuinely, brilliantly, hilariously funny it taking down the sensitivities of the progressive Left, but also Monk's own delusions. This is a movie whose pre-credits sequence contains more belly-laughs than most soi-disant comedies have in their whole running time. But what I love about this film is that it moves beyond that to deliver what Monk seeks: whole stories about contemporary black lives that are more than simply ghetto or slave stories. The Ellisons are a successful middle class family - highly educated and refined. Their emotional problems are fully described and beautifully acted by a fine cast, among whom Sterling K Brown steals every scene he is in.
My only criticism is that the movie doesn't quite stick the landing. This is partly by design. Neither Monk, nor the director, nor maybe the novelist who wrote the source material, are interested in easy answers and pat endings. Indeed, with their movie director character played by Adam Brody (The OC) they satirise the very concept. But I did want some consequences, if not a resolution. We all know of real life novelists exposed as lying about their real lives. I wanted to see the literary as well as the personal consequences. But this isn't that film, and as such, I was left wanting more.
AMERICAN FICTION is rated R and has a running time of 117 minutes. It played Toronto 2023 where it won the People's Choice Award for Best Film. It will be released in the USA on December 15th (cinemas) and December 22nd (streaming).