American Fiction Movie Review: Cord Jefferson’s Muddied Literary Satire

Review: Cord Jefferson’s first movie, American Fiction, didn’t blow me away, and I was hoping for a more cohesive film to get me excited about his big themes and sensibilities. A few stylistic choices are pleasant on the eyes, and the performances from Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown are worthy of their acclaim, but the final product is a lackluster satire.

jeffrey wright and sterling k brown in american fiction film
American Fiction (2023)

We’ve lost the art of satire. There are a handful of reasons for why this might be, but the longstanding genre of satirical comedies have been at a decline for nearly a decade now, culminating in hilariously misguided flops like Alexander Payne’s Downsizing in 2017 and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up in 2019. There are a few that have broken few since the beginning of the 2010s, but we live in a new age that has made it really difficult to find new, particularly funny angles of society without feeling like you’re being preached or pandered to. I was hoping that Cord Jefferson’s debut movie American Fiction would buck the trend of hideous satires.

And there was good reason to be hopeful for American Fiction. Cord Jefferson was a lead writer for HBO’s Succession, which lives in the small bucket of satirical dramas that I mentioned earlier. That series was extremely effective and biting, developing its airtight, acidic tone over multiple seasons and constantly finding new ways to laugh in the face of its antiheroes. I was really excited to see Jefferson bring that same energy to a feature length film, one that would hopefully kickstart a directing career that spans multiple efforts down the line.

Luckily, it seems like he’s done just that. American Fiction was a critical darling out of its festival runs that kickstarted in Toronto, and it has culminated in a handful of Academy Award nominations. This includes first-time nominees Jeffrey Wright in Best Actor, Sterling K. Brown in Best Supporting Actor, and the film itself getting nominated for Best Picture. Both of the performances are great in American Fiction, but unfortunately, I found much of the rest of this drifting satire rather misguided and inconsistent.

And it doesn’t help that American Fiction was intensely marketed with all of the movie’s best laugh lines and set pieces. There are two plotlines working side-by-side here, and trailers (and other supplement materials) leaned heavily into Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison as he attempts to write a book from the white populations stereotypical perceptions of African Americans.

I was shocked to see how heavily American Fiction plays into its other plotline, where Monk is struggling to balance personal relationships with his friends and family (including distant brother Cliff, played by Sterling K. Brown) following the sudden death of his sister. Sterling K. Brown serves as the emotional heartbeat of the movie, and it’s instantly better every time it allows enough time to dive deeper into Cliff backstory.

Yet the satirical elements of American Fiction, combined with a section of the film dedicated to a group of writers voting to award the New England Book Association’s literary prize, are surprisingly dull and lacking in genuine laughs. I’d be willing to forgive a lot of shortcomings had American Fiction made me laugh more, but I couldn’t bring myself to stay engaged with where it seemed to be heading.

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The performances ultimately stand out in an otherwise forgettable string of scenes that struggle to tie into one another. The edit is quite odd here, often straining surprisingly far in one direction. At times I forgot there was another plotline that the film had been developing.

Jeffrey Wright gives a remarkably soft and understated performances that works given the tone of the movie, which is similarly softer than your average satire. The role is worthy of his first Oscar nomination, and the critical acclaim seems to universally be centered around his ability to convey this unique material.

Sterling K. Brown really stands out here nearly every time he’s in a scene. The catharsis he delivers in his few moments, particularly one towards the end with his final big speech, help make American Fiction an occasionally rewarding experience, even if all the pieces don’t always fit together.

I didn’t expect Cord Jefferson’s first movie as a director to blow me away, but I was hoping for a more cohesive film to get me excited about his big themes and sensibilities. I’m going to try to give American Fiction another watch ahead of the Oscars, but for now, I’m a tad disappointed with the final product.


Genre: Comedy, Drama

Watch American Fiction on VOD here

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American Fiction Cast and Credits

american fiction movie 2023


Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison

Sterling K. Brown as Clifford Ellison

Tracee Ellis Ross as Lisa Ellison

John Ortiz as Arthur

Erika Alexander as Coraline

Leslie Uggams as Agnes Ellison

Adam Brody as Wiley Valdespino

Keith David as Willy the Wonker

Issa Rae as Sintara Golden


Director: Cord Jefferson

Writer: Cord Jefferson

Cinematography: Cristina Dunlap

Editor: Hilda Rasula

Composer: Laura Karpman

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