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film review

American Fiction

Directed by Cord Jefferson

Written by Cord Jefferson, based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett

Starring Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown

Classification 14A; 117 minutes

Opens in theatres Dec. 22

If there are Academy Awards handed out for marketing campaigns – and the way that the Oscars are going, it is only a matter of time – then the team behind American Fiction deserves a clean sweep. So far, ads for writer-director Cord Jefferson’s feature debut have been pushing a timely satire that upends conversations about race and culture, a lit-world comedy that’s a blistering indictment of “woke” progressives and narrow-minded conservatives alike.

And for about 20 minutes of its runtime, that’s exactly what American Fiction is. When the film focuses on moments between English professor and struggling author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) and his agent Arthur (John Ortiz), there is a crackling, mischievous energy of someone getting away with murder.

In a bid to grab the attention of publishing houses who don’t view Monk’s literary-minded novels as “Black enough” to sell, the pair concoct a scheme in which they push a pseudonymous book called My Pafology that smooshes together every Black/urban-culture cliché that they can conjure (“deadbeat dads, rappers, crack”). Almost immediately, the book world, and Hollywood (in the form of an unctuous producer played by Adam Brody), come rushing in with multimillion-dollar offers. Monk, or his prison-bred alter ego, is now a star.

That’s funny, timely and decently sharp stuff from Jefferson, who leapt from Gawker’s stable of go-for-broke journalists to the world of television writing almost a decade ago, putting time on everything from Master of None to HBO’s Watchmen. The trouble with American Fiction, though, is that the bulk of the film has nothing to do with Jefferson’s zeitgeist-skewering comedy – really, just a more palatable update of Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled – and everything to do with the filmmaker’s desire to be the next Nancy Meyers or James L. Brooks. The great truth (non-fiction?) of this film is that it is actually a rom-com.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Especially if your rom-com is loaded with endearing characters and clever situations and is thoroughly laced with charm. But American Fiction, which is adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, can’t quite boast such breezy bona fides.

While he’s working on his lit-world prank with Arthur, Monk heads back home to take care of his ailing mother. But trying to coax her into a seniors home isn’t the man’s only domestic dilemma, as his estranged brother (Sterling K. Brown) also enters the picture. Add the stirrings of a casual romance with a neighbour (Erika Alexander) and Monk’s rivalry with a fellow author (Issa Rae), and Jefferson delivers what might be a slightly younger-skewing, 2023-era Something’s Gotta Give.

Yet despite strong performances across the board – most notably Wright, who has never before been able to flex such leading-man magnetism – there is an overriding flatness to Monk’s personal life. There is little heat to his romantic affairs, his family is loaded with characters who either don’t stick around long enough or overstay their welcome, and unnecessary subplots are the rule of the day.

Once everything in Monk’s world comes to a head at a ritzy literary gala – a scene that overplays its satirical hand by revealing that Jefferson isn’t quite sure what he wants to ultimately say about race and culture, other than underlining the fact that it’s fun to play the jester without having to deal with the consequences of a gag – the film cannot help but feel like one of Monk’s less-celebrated novels.

Sometimes, you just need an editor to tell you where you’ve gone wrong. But at least Jefferson has an ace marketing team.

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