Cord Jefferson‘s American Fiction (Amazon MGM, 12.15) is a brilliant, perceptive, dryly amusing adult chuckler. Not a “comedy” but a heh-heh-funny kinda thing. I adored the low-keyness of it, and was delighted, of course, by the focus upon the general insanity of white wokeness — the off-the-charts fetishizing of black culture by guilty (wealthy, well-educated) white liberals. So I felt like a pig in shit.
And yet the source novel, Percival Everett‘s “Erasure,” was published 22 years ago, and therefore couldn’t have addressed the woke lunacy of the last five or six years. But Jefferson’s screenplay brings things right up to date. And having seen it this morning, I certainly understand the popularity of the film, starting with the Toronto Film festival debut (9.8.23); ditto those who voted to give it the People’s Choice Award.
Alas, I liked the first 45 or 50 minutes more than the remaining 60 or 65. (The total running time is 117 minutes.) I didn’t find the second section crushing or devasating or anything in that realm, but my hopes had been raised to such a degree…let me try again.
Here’s how I put it to a friend an hour ago: I was IN LOVE with American Fiction for the first 45 or 50 minutes. I adored the scathing criticism of idiotic white people falling all over themselves to praise black grit. I was definitely amused and charmed by it, and was positively swooning over Jeffrey Wright’s lead performance, and I really liked Sterling K. Brown‘s gay brother and pretty much the enire supporting cast (Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Adam Brody, Leslie Uggams).
And then a certain mock-literary hustle takes off and becomes a big success, and bit by bit and piece by piece the film starts to soften. The tension begins to dissipate. At times it even flails around. Less focused, less hardcore.
Please don’t think I disliked the second half because it does work here and there, but the back end doesn’t compare with that first 45 or 50. I thought the film might build into something angrier, more cynical, ballsier, franker.
It’s finally, to my mild disappointment, not much more than a smart social satire. Which is fine in itself but for a while I was yearning for so much more.
I thought Jefferson might go for broke and dive deeper, but he didn’t.
Friendo: “As finely crafted as the movie is, part of the reason I loved the first 45 minutes is the intense hope one has that American Fiction is going to be the scandalous, balls-out satire of white wokeness that we so desperately need (and by a black filmmaker!). And though it certainly nods in that direction, that’s not the film it turns out to be. I would call that a seriously blown opportunity.
“I agree that it’s a very solid and humane movie. But given the limitation we’re talking about, it’s being madly overhyped as an Oscar competitor. Clayton Davis and Scott Feinberg think it’s going to win Best Picture!”
Friendo #2 who’s read “Erasure”: “Everett’s book is harder than the film. [Jeffrey Wright]’s sister is murdered by an abortion protester, and the father may have sired another child with a white woman, etc.
“The movie stuff isn’t in the book but the book has a lot of meta, text-within-a-text stuff so I can understand why Jefferson wanted to transpose those effects into the adaptation.
“The book within the book parodies Richard WrIght and of course ‘Ellison’ is meant to evoke Ralph. There is some Ishmael Reed in the mix too. Everett himself teaches college so I’m sure he has had to endure the same sort of thing hat [Wright’s character] does in the opening scene.
“Wright’s romance with Erika Alexander isn’t in the book either. Everett is an executive producer so I presume he signed off on the changes. And I’m sure he knows no one is in a hurry to adapt ‘The Trees.'”