Professors in Trouble

Jeffrey Wright in Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction (2023)

Film Comment’s Devika Girish is in Toronto, where she’s just launched a series of podcasts. So far, she’s spoken with Mark Asch and Maddie Whittle about Phạm Thiên Ân’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell and Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3 and with Chloe Lizotte and Adam Nayman about Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron. Here, we’re turning to a pair of films about frustrated professors making their world premieres at the festival. Most of the early reviews are pretty solid, even if some critics have expressed a few reservations.

American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright’s performance in American Fiction is “like a room tone machine set to ‘ambient contempt,’” writes Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope. Wright plays Thelonious Ellison—his friends call him Monk—a novelist whose publishers don’t think his writing is “Black enough” and a professor of English literature who infuriates his students by teaching a Flannery O’Connor short story with the N-word in its title.

The university sends him home to Boston, where his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) is caring for their ailing mother (Leslie Uggams), and where he drops in on a reading by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose latest novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, is a roaring success. Infuriated, Monk hammers out a parody, My Pafology, and convinces his agent (John Ortiz) to send it to publishers and tell them it comes from Stagg R. Leigh, a criminal on the lam and therefore unavailable for interviews. Naturally, Monk suddenly has a bestseller on his hands—and a film deal to boot.

American Fiction, the directorial debut from Cord Jefferson, a journalist who has worked as a writer and consultant on Succession, Watchmen, and Station Eleven, is an adaptation of Erasure, the 2001 novel Percival Everett wrote in part as a response to Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push. Precious, Lee Daniels’s 2009 adaptation of Push, was a hit with critics and audiences alike at Sundance and Toronto. When Monk sets out to turn My Pafology into a movie, “Jefferson personalizes the film, edging in a number of good jokes about the screenwriting process and how Hollywood cannibalizes identity for profit,” writes Lovia Gyarkye in the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s also through this thread that American Fiction suggests that the existential crisis of the Black artist is kind of an impossible problem to overcome. Whether or not you agree with that conclusion is a different story.”

For Vulture’s Alison Willmore, the “secret of American Fiction is that it’s stealthily the thing Monk longs for—a portrait of Black characters who are not representatives of inner-city oppression, who have upper-middle-class lives and who grew up with a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, and who have their own richly delineated set of problems. The literary-world jabs are sharp and funny, but it’s the rueful family dynamics that make the film rewarding.” In the Guardian, Radheyan Simonpillai suggests that American Fiction “feels like Jordan Peele sneaked a bottle of pepper sauce into Alexander Payne’s Thanksgiving dinner.”

Dream Scenario

In Dream Scenario, the third feature from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself), Nicolas Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a nebbish tenured professor of evolutionary biology, and “he may have never been as flat-out hilarious,” writes Michael Rechtshaffen in the Hollywood Reporter. Paul’s students, wife (Julianne Nicholson), and two daughters like him well enough when they aren’t ignoring him altogether.

For no reason anyone can begin to explain, Paul has been appearing in people’s dreams. It takes a while for everyone to figure out it’s the same guy—and to come to the even stranger collective realization that, no matter how surreal, scary, or sexy these dreams may be, Paul just stands there in them, doing nothing. Two ad agency reps (Michael Cera and Kate Berlant) and their assistant (Dylan Gelula) intend to make hay out of the phenomenon, and the sudden tsunami of attention somehow warps Paul’s behavior in everyone’s dreams. He becomes more aggressive, and eventually, an object of universal contempt and fear.

Vulture’s Nate Jones notes that Borgli “has been open about the fact that the film was inspired by a series of proto-cancel-culture scandals in academia. ‘I was intrigued by these professors who couldn’t recognize what they were accused of,’ he said after the premiere. ‘Crimes that were all fabricated in the minds of others.’”

“Provocation is nothing new for Borgli,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear, but the “lack of a viewpoint here” is “both a boon and bust: If this was an attempt to directly attack the ‘woke mob’ mentality toward genuinely bad men, the satire wouldn’t work. Yet the idea of using such elements to tell the story of how fame becomes unwieldy and possibly prosecutorial courts toothlessness or distraction in a way that doesn’t service the film. It wants to have its hot-button-issue mentions and brush them into the background when they make things complicated, too.”

In the Guardian, Charles Bramesco notes that Ari Aster’s “participation as producer makes the comparison to Beau Is Afraid, a parallel trail of tribulation for a dumpy guy at the mercy of a universe that won’t stop picking on him, before a critic gets the chance to. Though that frees us up to instead point to Election, which shares the steady, clinical diagnosis of the way ego makes over sad-sack beta males into arrogant lechers.” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich finds that “for all of the high-concept semi-comedies that we get these days, precious few have had this much fun just following their own rules to logical conclusions.”

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