Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a struggling author who can’t sell another manuscript. Desperate, he observes how stereotypical novels by African Americans that evoke white guilt are popular. With his mother in need after the death of his father, Monk decides to write the type of “black” book he despises with a pseudonym as a joke. The problem is the joke goes too far and he soon finds himself struggling to deal with writing a hit novel by accident.
American Fiction Movie Review: Script Analysis
The script of American Fiction presents tones of the conflicted nature of honesty and the absurdity of pitching a sales-worthy black story. It echoes much of the same narrative choices in the original novel, keeping the original title of Monk’s book, as well as the more profane title he changes it to. The humor is perfectly on point by highlighting the absurdity of how far Monk can go with his stereotypical book and how little he can do to fight back the monster he’s created.
Throughout the film is this desire to remain authentic and how it sadly doesn’t sell. Monk’s played-up character makes him more bitter about how he can’t write his way, an aspect reflected in his brother’s regrets for not telling dad he was gay while he still had the chance. The progression of Monk’s uncontrollable book is also portrayed in a believable manner, even though it seems like the only one critical of the book is Monk’s rival/contemporary, Sintara Golden. The film also makes the smart choice by questioning and reworking an ending that audiences would find more pleasing, rather than the less enticing finale to this faked-book plot.
American Fiction Movie Review: Star Performance
Jeffrey Wright has a strong presence in this film, having played a supporting player in several films. He’s perfectly cast in this picture, which has his astute charm over wine and his silent aggravation over playing up a street-wise black author. Sterling K. Brown is also the perfect eccentric rival for Monk, finding himself far more open and critical with his family, providing a lot of sobering conversations between the two. Monk’s sister, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, provides a similar firm base of scrutiny, and there are some sweet moments when Monk connects with his girlfriend, Coraline, played by Erika Alexander.
Special credit should be given to Issa Rae, who owns her scenes as the author Sintara Golden. Though only having a few scenes with Jeffrey Wright, they play off each other beautifully in the third act, where they debate the merits of writing about the black experience for a white audience. There are also some decent supporting performances by John Ortiz as the money-hungry agent willing to overlook Monk’s lie and Adam Brody as a director too stuck in his stuffy ways to recognize the reality of Monk’s ordeal.
What’s Good: The premise of a black writer pretending to be a “blacker” author is knowingly amusing for societal satire. Jeffrey Wright is also a lot of fun to watch in a film where he’s as amusing for his stuffy nature of writing as he is for his more sincere moments of charm with family and friends. The dialogue is also wickedly smart and packs in some great laughs for the absurdity of the scenario.
What’s Bad: The film settles too easily on trying to find a resolution for the premise, turning the concept around on the audience with a meta-resolution of ambiguity. The white liberal characters who consume Monk’s satirical writings are also portrayed in a manner more cartoonish than they create a different tone compared to the more genuine heart of Monk’s personal life.
Loo Break: A good point to take a break in American Fiction would be when Monk catches his brother in his pool. It’s a decent moment of connection with his family, but it’s mostly a predictable exchange as Monk receives pity that Coraline can see as well.
Watch or Not?: Despite how easily a premise like this could fall apart for resting on one joke, American Fiction works well enough with its societal commentary to be an enduring and smart comedy.
Available On: Theatrical release