By Adam Nayman
Playing a mildly acclaimed—and tenuously tenured—novelist wary of up-and-coming race-hustling Black writers and the white-run publishing industry that enables them, Jeffrey Wright vibrates his way through American Fiction with a kind of bemused resignation: his acting is like a room tone machine set to “ambient contempt.” Suffice it to say that any satire as tonally broad and conceptually strident as Cord Jefferson’s debut—which names its stifled, ambitious African-American Everyman protagonist “Thelonious Ellison” (nickname: “Monk”) and goes from there—could use the grounding presence of one of the great contemporary under-actors, and the parts of American Fiction that work do so largely by the ornery grace of Wright’s performance, which surfs the vertices of Monk’s personal and vocational disillusionment and the self-loathing that moves him to willingly prostitute his talents.
Plot wise, Cord’s scenario and thesis borrow so heavily from Bamboozled (2000) that it’s amazing (or maybe telling) that Spike Lee isn’t one of the many names dropped in the dialogue; adopting the pseudonym of “Stagg R. Leigh,” Monk jerry-rigs a pandering, hysterically marketable ghetto-themed best-seller (My Pafology) and becomes the voice of a generation: a ventriloquist being puppeted by his own dummy. The jokes, about books, movies, and the inner workings of the culture industry hit at about a 50-50 rate, but only a few land like haymakers—a corollary, perhaps, of Jefferson’s accessible (and decidedly non-radical) aesthetics, which are better suited to the domestic-drama scenes about Monk’s loving but dysfunctional extended family. Prediction time: my feeling is that American Fiction will win the TIFF Audience Award, which would, on one level, be extremely funny, given a few of its recent predecessors, and perfectly apropos—for better or for worse. Whether it’s actually possible to work through those kinds of artistic and spectatorial contradictions is both the film’s point and a hint as to its ultimate limitations.