The Incredible Monk
Like Tootsie and The Fortune Cookie, American Fiction is a scam gone hilariously right
[Oscar nominations are out Tuesday, and I’ve been pre-gaming them with reviews of top contenders like Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Holdovers, May December, Poor Things, and Past Lives. Here’s another — much more to come! ]
It’s nice when a sure thing surprises you. Even from the trailer, I could see American Fiction had a good, sharp satiric edge, but I didn’t realize until I saw it that it also had a family drama element, and that it gave context and balance to the satire.
As you may know, the main plot is about Thelonious Ellison (nearly everyone calls him Monk), a middle-aged black author with a bougie background and a strong seemingly-moral streak. He’s tired of seeing his complex and writerly novels brushed off and turned down while other authors no blacker than himself draw hosannas with ghetto dialect melodramas like scribe-of-the-moment Sintara Golden’s breakout hit, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.”
In pique at Sintara and the white publishers he feels conspire to feed his people stereotype-reenforcing slop, Ellison writes under the cheeky pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh a parodic street epic called “My Pafology” (in which a hood rat on the run from the law kills his old man, seething at him that “you ain’t shit so I ain’t shit”) and pushes his agent to shop it around “to rub their noses in the horseshit they solicit.”
You can guess: the white publishing world goes nuts for it — especially when the agent gets the bright idea to tell them “Leigh” is a wanted fugitive. Ellison is very conflicted at his big score; on the one hand, now he’s the con artist; on the other, Mom’s going into a home and he needs the money.
At first, pushed by his delighted agent, Ellison mau-maus the flak-catchers (challenged on his authenticity by one exec over the phone, he growls, “You think some bitch-ass college boy can come up with this shit?”). But then, in sudden fit of counter-pique, he tries to sabotage it by insisting the book be re-titled “Fuck.” You will have guessed right again, and among the funnier bits in the movie is a chipper black daytime TV hostess telling her titillated audience “it’s called — cover your kids’ eyes and ears – [BLEEP]!” and holding up a copy with the title pixelated, to giggles and applause, followed by a silhouetted, voice-altered Ellison giving an insipid thug-author rap (“I learned that words belong to everybody”).
The stunt achieves the classic comic gone-too-well velocity of, for example, The Fortune Cookie or Tootsie — no matter how far the fraudster pushes his fraud, either the system just swallows harder or fate clears a path.
And, as in those cases, the double-game becomes a trap that makes things harder on the hero at a personal level. Here’s where the family drama comes in. [Mild spoilers] Early in the film, Ellison’s sister Lisa dies, his Mom gets Alzheimer’s, and his cokehead fuck-up brother Cliff is fucking up (and coking up) harder than ever. (Good for Cliff figuring out he’s gay, as fatal as that was to his marriage to a woman and his finances, but he sees it as a cue to get on a roaring party train: “I’ve only been gay for like five minutes. I gotta make up for lost time.”)
In other words, around the time Sintara’s cheesy black family dysfunction story is enraging Ellison into action, he’s suffering some genuine black family dysfunction, upper-class edition — notwithstanding their (often very funny) dialogue is in better English than that of Sintara’s Sharonda and Ray-Ray, and that the pressures that have cracked his family have to do with expectation and disappointment rather than poverty and neglect.
[More spoilers] Dad, we learn, was a very successful OB-GYN who had multiple affairs (about which Lisa and Cliff knew all along, but which Ellison only learns during the film) and ended up blowing his brains out. The old man was a genius, his mother tells him, and “geniuses are lonely, because they can’t connect with the rest of us.” “I find myself getting very angry these days like dad,” Ellison tells Cliff. “These days?” Cliff replies.
Plus which Ellison has acquired a girlfriend — who actually likes his books! — and he’s blowing it, in large part because he can only react to her interest in that hot new black author’s book, which she doesn’t know Ellison wrote, with contempt — the same contempt, it would seem, that generated the book in the first place.
We get the idea that there’s more going on in Ellison’s mind, and in his scam, than just righteous outrage at literary minstrelry. This is a smart, expansive turn and — in the tradition of scam comedies — leads us from rooting for the scam to rooting for its demise, or rather for the self-awareness that would blow it up.
Alas, it seems auteur Cord Jefferson couldn’t find a way out — and while his meta resolution is clever, it isn’t as satisfying as the wind-up. Well, Tootsie and The Fortune Cookie have similar problems, though I have to say Sydney Pollack and Billy Wilder didn’t just throw their hands up at them.
This is Jeffrey Wright’s spotlight turn and he absolutely eats it up. His simultaneously clenched and shambling body has midlife crisis written all over it, and the more you learn about him the more sense his sullen, brutal “Stagg” affect makes. (It makes me wonder if this couldn’t have been a superhero secret-identity movie: The Incredible “Fuck”!) He plays Ellison as the sort of littérateur who can set your teeth on edge —every sentence complex and measured, “Detective Dictionary” as Lisa and Nick call him — but, as the reaction formation it comes from becomes more obvious, it’s easy to feel for him and his brokenness, and when he relaxes enough to let a little wisdom in, it feels like a triumph, even if the ending doesn’t.
As the sibs, Tracee Ellis Ross is adorable as usual, and Sterling K. Brown is both amusing and depressing as the prodigal: Alert to and amused by his own catastrophe, which makes it both better and worse. And who isn’t happy to see Leslie Uggams again? (The white people are all ridiculous caricatures, but turnabout is fair play.)