Friday, December 30, 2016

OVP: Fences (2016)

Film: Fences (2016)
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Director: Denzel Washington
Oscar History: 4 nominations (Best Picture, Actor-Denzel Washington, Supporting Actress-Viola Davis, Adapted Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Stage-to-screen adaptations are an odd duck for me.  I grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota, so access to movies was tough for me-access to theater was downright impossible.  In fact, some of my earliest memories of plays and musicals were, like so many in my situation, their big-screen counterparts, and two in particular stick out in my mind: A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  Both feature some of the finest screen acting of all-time, a fascinating study of what exactly to do when you're being filmed in a medium that isn't the intended medium for your work.  That transformation, though, is difficult to grasp, even for world class actors.  We have seen that with films like Proof or Doubt, where riveting stage works end up falling flat when transformed to the big-screen.  As this was August Wilson's first dance in celluloid, and Denzel Washington is a pretty inexperienced film director, I was curious how this translation would take place.

(Spoilers Ahead) I will admit at the beginning of this article that I, personally, had never seen any of the works of August Wilson on the stage, though I was obviously familiar with his name.  Therefore, the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), his wife Rose (Davis), and his complicated relationship with his past successes and failures (of which he occasionally counts his sons), was one that I had never heard nor didn't know the direction it was going to take.  There's always something to be said for sampling a story for the first time, and if there's nothing else you should take away from this review, it was that I was enamored and mesmerized by August Wilson's dialogue and pacing.  Damn, that man could write.  Seeing Fences unfold was, in some ways, similar to the first time I saw Streetcar or Death of a Salesman or The Crucible for the first time-it's electric, profound, wonderfully scripted.  The original production won the Pulitzer Prize, and it deserved it.  Wilson's insights into the American family and sharp plotting are something to behold-it's hard to argue with the fact that Fences is an American classic in terms of its actual script.  Suffice it to say, I will be seeing August Wilson plays every chance I get from now on if this is any indication of what they entail.

As a result of this scripting, pretty much anything about the film should be interesting, and Washington is smart enough to hire actors who can actually act, and in many cases actors who have stage experience like Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy's weary friend Bono.  They can sink their teeth into the script and deliver some of the monologues with a raw intensity.  It's hard to see the film and not think that this was pin-dropping work on a stage.  When Troy comes in and says he's going to be a father or Rose demanding that she had dreams too-that's some fantastic work.

The problem for me was that while Washington smartly keeps the film largely inside the small world of the Maxson's home (only rarely do they leave for a bar or his work place), the performances frequently feel off, as if Washington and Davis aren't quite ready to tone down the work to a cinematic level.  Washington in particular I felt was still pitching for the back of the Cort Theatre with a number of his monologues, and while he's too good of an actor to not land some of the emotionality of the role, this weird lack of modulation makes his Troy seem less like a character we're seeing unfold before our eyes and more like a vehicle for wonderful soliloquies; Washington's Troy doesn't seem like he could possibly be a real person.  This is a problem since Troy as written is decidedly real, someone who has been broken down by bad luck and the racist timing of history.  In another era, he would have been Jackie Robinson, a pioneer, or Hank Aaron, one of the greats, but instead is a garbage collector because he got old too soon.  The cruelty of the writing keeps Washington and Davis in-check in terms of too many bursts of over-acting (and both get wonderful moments, like the quieter ones surrounding Troy's love child and how she is motherless at birth), but only Henderson truly shifts to the cinema, giving the best performance in the film as a someone whose opinion of Troy slowly moves from friendly adoration to pity to distance.  There's a great scene toward the end of the movie where Bono looks at Troy with this fantastic look of "get away from me" after so many years of hero-worshiping him-it's marvelous work from Henderson, and the kind of touch that isn't possible in a giant Broadway house.

So yes, the film is good, but it's only good in my opinion because it seems next to impossible to screw up a script this flawless.  I'm undecided on if August Wilson deserves the Oscar he'll probably be posthumously nominated for (after all, he had no way of knowing this would happen or didn't adapt the film at all to the screen personally), but it's hard to imagine that a better piece of writing will be nominated this year.  I still think, though, that this could have been one for the ages with some tweaking from Davis and Washington, both of whom hit so many runs throughout the film, but never the grand slam that the script gives the opportunity to achieve.

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