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American Fiction (Film Review)

3 min read

American Fiction is a highly entertaining comedy-drama from Cord Jefferson, a writer and TV director, known for his work on the HBO limited series WatchmenIn his feature film debut, based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, Jefferson delivers a sharp, unflinching satire on the American publishing industry. It features a terrific lead performance from Jeffery Wright, who plays Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a university professor and author of many highbrow novels. Monk’s desire to create fictional masterworks has relegated his books to the fringes of literary circles, ignored by the general public, much to the dismay of his agent Arthur (John Ortiz). As a frustrated novelist with an underwhelming career and various personal issues, Monk is a man on the edge.

Wright carries the film, portraying Monk as an aloof professor who finally reaches a breaking point when his latest piece of work is rejected by publishers. And with his career falling behind more popular authors like Sintra Golden (Issa Rae), who’s just released a bestseller, he decides to retaliate by writing a parody. Under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, he pens a manuscript for a new novel, titled ‘My Pafology’, which is a deliberately exaggerated crime story and it’s full of stereotypes. Hazardously written without much planning and care for the details, it’s Monk’s attempt at making a statement against the industry, but in rather comical circumstances, the book becomes a massive success. Of course, the whole scenario is a complete farce and Monk knowingly plays along, adopting the public persona of Stagg R. Leigh to maintain the deception, and it’s all very amusing.

With its heavy-handed material and smart meta-comedy, American Fiction succeeds as a film that finds a bridge between realism and absurdist satire. Such is the power of the issues the film tackles that as American Fiction progresses, it becomes a multifaceted tale of a fifty-something writer who must navigate many challenging relationships. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it places the audience inside Monk’s headspace, with the characters of ‘My Pafology’ appearing before him in a sequence where he’s writing his novel. Here, the viewing experience has qualities that are both eccentric and transporting, and Wright has a consistently engaging screen presence.

Every conflict he faces throughout the film is equally hilarious, including Monk’s interactions with his estranged brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), both of whom bring energy to their verbal sparring at each other, and these moments are balanced with softer scenes around Monk’s wider family. As the film explores Monk’s complex life, the tone of American Fiction becomes much more grounded, but there’s always something strange simmering under the surface. Amid all the drama, the gags are brilliant, and Jefferson’s outlandish humour is perfectly timed.

American Fiction works incredibly well, and Jefferson has an inventive approach to satire, bolstered by the strength and gravitas of Wright’s performance. It might not be as bold as Jordan Peele’s impressively accomplished social satire Get Out, but Jefferson’s effort is thoughtful and nuanced. There’s an attentiveness to every moment in the film and that’s what makes it so incisive. American Fiction is very enjoyable and clever with a brilliantly told story.

American Fiction is now in cinemas.

4 out of 5