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First-time filmmaker Cord Jefferson's 'American Fiction' is both moving and hilarious

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A first-time director navigating tricky tonal shifts helms a comedy about race that is also a dramedy about family. The new movie "American Fiction" has a lot of moving parts. Critic Bob Mondello is impressed by the way they fit together.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Professor Thelonious Ellison, known to friends and family as Monk, has not been having a good day when his agent calls about his latest rejection by a publisher.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

JOHN ORTIZ: (As Arthur) They want a Black book.

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) They have a Black book. I'm Black, and it's my book.

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) You know what I mean.

WRIGHT: (Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) You mean they want me to write about the cop killing some teenager or a single mom in Dorchester raising five kids.

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) Dorchester's pretty white now. But, yes.

MONDELLO: Monk's having this conversation while trying to hail a cab that ignores him and picks up a white guy just a few feet away, which does not help his mood. Then at a book festival, his symposium is sparsely attended because everyone's down the hall listening to bestselling author Sintara Golden.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

NICOLE KEMPSKIE: (As moderator) How did you come to write this book?

ISSA RAE: (As Sintara Golden) What really struck me was that too few books were about my people. Where are our stories? Where is our representation?

KEMPSKIE: (As moderator) Would you give us the pleasure of reading an excerpt?

RAE: (As Sintara Golden, reading) Yo, Sharonda (ph). Girl, you be pregnant again?

MONDELLO: It's just too much. Monk, played as increasingly exasperated by Jeffrey Wright, retreats to his family's beach house, where he gets an idea and sends it to his agent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

ORTIZ: (As Arthur, reading) I be standing outside in the night.

WRIGHT: (Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Deadbeat dads, rappers, crack. You said you wanted Black stuff. That's Black, right?

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) I see what you're doing.

MONDELLO: Monk insists he send it out under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. And to both their astonishment...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) We sold your book.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) No.

MIRIAM SHOR: (As Paula) We believe Mr. Leigh has written a bestseller.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) It was a joke.

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) The most lucrative joke you've ever told.

SHOR: (As Paula) Now, is Stagg a pseudonym?

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Yeah.

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) Mr. Leigh can't use his real name.

MONDELLO: And now the lies start piling up. His agent claims Monk's in hiding because he has a criminal past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

ADAM BRODY: (As Wiley) Can I ask what you were in for? Was it murder?

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) You said that, not me.

MONDELLO: Now, if this were all that filmmaker Cord Jefferson were doing, it'd be kind of a riot. But he's got bigger fallacies to fry, or delusions to deglaze, or stereotypes to stir or whatever.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

SHOR: (As Paula) We think it is going to be the read of the summer.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Yeah. I'm sure white people on the Hamptons will delight in it.

SHOR: (As Paula) Yes. We will. They - we - it's going to be huge.

MONDELLO: "American Fiction" is based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel "Erasure." The novel embeds Monk's entire, ludicrously stereotyped book inside its story, makes it the craziness so the author can make Monk's emotional life more nuanced, his relationship with his mom, say, who's slipping into dementia, as played by Leslie Uggams in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

LESLIE UGGAMS: (As Agnes Ellison) Is that Monkey?

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) It's so frightening.

UGGAMS: (As Agnes Ellison) You look fat.

MONDELLO: In the film, instead of giving us the book itself as bait, the director baits us with the publishing craziness surrounding it so he can deal more subtly with the emotional stuff. And it's seriously engaging - Monk's ever supportive sister, played by Tracee Ellis Ross...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Lisa Ellison) Books change people's lives.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Has something I've written ever changed your life?

ELLIS ROSS: (As Lisa Ellison) Absolutely. My dining room table was wobbly as hell.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Oh, my God.

ELLIS ROSS: (As Lisa Ellison) Well, your last book came out. It was, like, perfect.

MONDELLO: ...His recently-come-out-as-gay brother, played by Sterling K. Brown...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Did you know Dad had affairs?

STERLING K BROWN: (As Clifford Ellison) Oh, for sure.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Why am I the last to know?

BROWN: (As Clifford Ellison) 'Cause you loved him too much. Enemies see each other better than friends.

MONDELLO: ...And Monk's wiser-than-he-is girlfriend, played by Erika Alexander.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

ERIKA ALEXANDER: (As Coraline) You can't write interesting characters and be critical of every bad decision they make, right?

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Maybe you should be the writer. I don't feel like much of one lately.

MONDELLO: Monk is hiding his increasingly public writing from all of them, but also hiding himself, all while the filmmaker shreds the entertainment and publishing industries for the voices they erase and the others they compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) The dumber I behave, the richer I get.

MONDELLO: Balancing all the different tugs of this material and making it moving and jazzy and hilarious you'd think would challenge any filmmaker. But first-timer Cord Jefferson seems to have no trouble making it live up to the grand title "American Fiction." I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY'S "AUTUMN LEAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.