Monday, January 09, 2017

Fences (2016)

The primary purpose of this movie is obvious, given away by its Christmas Day release. It's here to win Oscars and be important. And if that's the only way a movie like this can be made, well, all right. I'm not exactly saying Fences is timelessly great, though it's pretty darned good. A big budget screen adaptation by August Wilson of his own play—with posthumous uncredited input from Tony Kushner—is probably not going to happen much of any other way. The bones of Fences are solid in the original play and story, which bristle with 20th-century African-American history. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directs) is a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, a washed-up and bitter former Negro League baseball player. He was quite a player, they all agree—only Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson were better, says one character—and now he's quite a storyteller. In the fullness of this narrative he was hard for me to like, but he's often infectiously charming when he gets wound up into his stories. Making him unlikable is a choice and it serves the whole well. There is a lot of complexity in Troy Maxson, and in all the other characters here too—his wife Rose (Viola Davis), a grown son from his first marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son with Rose, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who shows signs of athleticism himself, and a brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) suffering from untreated World War II PTSD. It's a great story and no amount of high-toned well-meaning production can obscure that—indeed, it probably helped with winning on all the talent. The play's the thing, as somebody said. This movie is built on a good play and further fortified by excellent performances. I wasn't always sold on Washington, but that might be because I wasn't always sold on Troy Maxson—which probably means it's a good performance. I thought Viola Davis as his wife Rose was the best thing in a picture full of great things. She is humble, long-suffering, and eloquent when the occasion calls, full of bubbling joy and poignant dignity that never feel put on. Stephen Henderson as family friend Jim Bono is also great in a supporting role. Washington's directing is nothing special—he seems to like putting characters at opposite sides of the frame to fill the screen, and he uses lots of close-ups. But it's still mostly a film of a play, driven by dialogue in static settings. Washington never gets in the way of anything either. Altogether a safe choice.

1 comment:

  1. Impressive effort here you're making to mitigate your contempt for Oscar bait. It's not the movie's fault this is the way it's marketed! Oprah has to figure in this project, right? I liked the play.