Fences and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Denzel Washington
So what we have is one of the most respected black actors making a film based off of a multiple award winning stage play in a year where the Academy is looking for ANY film to try and make up for OSCAR SO WHITE. Well, since Birth of a Nation turned out to be underwhelming and Moonlight being under the radar for most, chances are that Denzel’s big film of the year is gonna be a HUGE winner come the end of February. Still, being ripe Oscar bait doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a GOOD movie (*cough* The King’s Speech *cough*), and there are plenty of films that won awards that no one cared about even a year later (*cough* Chariots of Fire *cough*). Is this one of those that exists solely to maximize Oscar wins, or is there more beneath the surface what with the immense talent in front of and behind the camera? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about the Maxson family; primarily the patriarch breadwinner Troy (Denzel Washington), his loving yet firms wife Rose (Viola Davis), and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). The family lives a comfortable if somewhat tiring life in the Pittsburg suburbs where Troy spends five days a week hauling garbage and the other two days complaining that he never got his shot to play baseball professionally. Naturally, he’s the kind of guy who makes sure that EVERYONE knows what he could have been if he wasn’t such a gosh darn loving and responsible father, and this attitude starts to get him into more and more trouble as the play goes along; including when his son is given a shot to go to college on a football scholarship that he isn’t too keen on letting him accept. Will this man’s bitterness and resentment towards the world lead to his family (including his son from another family Lyons played by Russell Horsnby and his brother Gabriel who suffered brain damage during the war played by Mykelti Willamson) to finally turn their back on him no matter how many meals his paycheck gives them? What else is he getting up to that neither he nor his best friend Jim Bono (Stehen McKinley Henderson) aren’t too keen on talking about? Just how much screen time is too much for Denzel!?
The fact that this is a movie is very incidental which is something you sometimes have to expect when it comes to adapting from stage to screen, but it’s somewhat irksome as a film critic to try and talk about this as a movie when the movie itself doesn’t care about how good of a movie it is. A good rule of thumb for a critic is to ask what the movie is trying to accomplish and did it succeeded in doing that. Now this doesn’t always work, especially when what a movie is trying to accomplish is completely reprehensible, but it does help to provide a proper frame by which to examine it. Viewing the film from that perspective however means that my role as a FILM critic becomes somewhat irrelevant as I can talk about how unimpressive and workmanlike all the production stuff is, but that wouldn’t be taking the movie on the merits by which it wants to be judged; namely as a straightforward adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play and also to get Denzel a few more Oscars. On that front, it definitely succeeds and so passes the test of accomplishing the goals it sets out for itself. That said, it could have stood to be a bit more ambitious as any aspect that is unique or heightened due to this being a film rather than a live performance is left to fall by the wayside.
To the film’s credit, it does work as far as presenting a series of dialogue heavy scenes that are performed by great actors putting their all into the material; particularly Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. These extended sequences of Denzel just shooting the shit or Viola Davis blowing up at his dumb ass are why we’re there in the first place, and the movie handles these scenes just fine. As a character, Troy Maxson is nuanced, charismatic, and for most of us I’m guessing, VERY relatable. I can’t speak for EVERYONE’S home life, but even though my dad has never been much like Troy is here, there’s a bit of universal truth in the way he dresses down his son for asking what he perceives to be a REALLY stupid question, and… well I’ve certainly asked MY dad a few stupid questions before. I guess I can really only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s felt inferior when all I wanted to do was whatever the hell he wanted me to and managed to fuck it up somehow. There’s a lot of that here whenever Troy and Cory are interacting, and the escalation of that relationship definitely felt real enough to me and was one of the more satisfying aspects of this story. Now while this all may be Denzel’s movie, Viola Davis manages to put just as much into her role as he puts into his, and frankly his wouldn’t BE as good as it is if it wasn’t for her giving him someone to effectively bounce off of; an apt metaphor for their relationship in the movie itself. No one else in the cast manages to get up to their level (not even the aforementioned son), but they’re not just filler for the background and they do manage to be fully fleshed out in their own right even if they aren’t as wonderfully expressive and well-drawn as the two leads.
The film making may not be impressive, but the sheer talent on screen manages to make this a worthwhile experience which I guess only makes criticisms of the actual camera work, editing, and music, all the more irrelevant. Well… I’d still say that’s not true as the LACK of anything noteworthy can be just as big a detriment as the inclusion of poorly done elements. This isn’t something NEW as films have been adapted from plays since the invention of the medium, so it’s not like pointing to other examples of the genre that not only filmed the actors saying their lines but actually took advantage of the kind of control you gain by not having to do it live is in any way unfair to this movie. Hell, anyone who’s into live theater will let you know that it offers plenty of things that film doesn’t, so when you lose those and add almost nothing to compensate, well you legitimately have a product that is inferior to going to see this play live. Look at something like Killer Joe which was ALSO based on a theatrical work, but managed to be just as much of a dark and twisted noir FILM as it was a recreation of the dark and twisted noir PLAY. The lighting is moody and atmospheric, the camera uses effective angles to highlight Joe’s foreboding presence, and they even have the main set of the movie (the trailer) change shape and size in order to accentuation the action on screen. Now that’s not to say that THIS particular adaptation should have gone with hyper-stylization (it wouldn’t fit with the tone of the story), but they could have done SOMETHING with it to make it at least not so noticeable that we’re just pointing the camera at whoever is talking.
Now for those of you out there who just want to see a good adaptation of this work so that you don’t have to pay live theater prices every time you want to see it, you’ll be fine just checking it out at the multiplex and buying the blu ray in a few months. For those of us who can get into that mindset but want to know about the story itself, well I found it… pretty good. Look, I’m about thirty years late to be reviewing this stage play, and I’m particularly unqualified to do so as I don’t tend to review those or even see them more than once every five or so years. Personally, I found the individual scenes to be enjoyable and well crafted, but I was annoyed by the overall structure. Maybe this works better on stage than in a movie, but the film would spend about twenty or so minutes on build ups and small dramatic payoffs, but when it came to the fallout for the BIG stuff that happens, the movie will just jump ahead a few months to when all that stuff has been smoothed out. Okay, maybe not SMOOTHED OUT, but we end up missing some really juicy scenes that would have been interesting to see Denzel Washington have to deal with, and this ends up making all that time we spent on the nitty gritty emotional implications and small tragedies feel… well like they would in real life; bumps in the road that we all end up having to move on from. Fair enough to August Wilson in that case, but I ultimately felt like I would have preferred if they had focused on ONE big blow up tragedy rather than the three or so that we end up dealing with in the movie. Again, something like this would probably work better on the stage as the transitions from one snapshot into their lives to another can feel a bit more organic to that format, but in a film it just made things feel a bit inconsistent as far as focus; especially because the jumps in time aren’t well established the same way a scene clearly would end in a play.
Honestly, any criticism I have for this movie is going to fall on deaf ears for those who already have any interest in the stage play, so there’s certainly a built in audience here; mainly those who want seeing it to be WAY easier. They’ll stick it alongside their copies of Chicago, Cabaret, The Crucible, (for some reason I’m thinking of a lot that start with C), and enjoy it just fine. For everyone else who doesn’t have a vested interest in this prior to the movie, they’ll still probably get enough out of it to make it worth checking out in a theater. Even I don’t regret seeing it that way despite my own grievances with it as a film critic, so I’m sure that most people who aren’t going to be paying attention to it that way won’t even notice any of the issues I brought up. If nothing else, this is gonna make it WAY easier to fill out those Oscar prediction cards next month.
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