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Thursday, February 9, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Fences (2016)

When an actor makes the leap to directing, you never truly know what the outcome will be. Some make the transition so successfully that directing takes over their careers. Others, as my No Encores column shows, try it once and decide it's not for them. Sometimes, I honestly wonder if being an actor-turned-director helps a movie's Oscar chances. Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and this year's Mel Gibson have long been AMPAS favorites. Denzel Washington getting several nominations for his directorial debut, “Fences,” seems to see this out. At least it will, if the movie wins anything.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson, who adapted the story to screen before his death, “Fences” is about Troy Maxson. A illiterate black man living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and working as a garbage man, Troy is married to Rose and has two sons. Lyons is from a previous marriage and endeavors to become a jazz musician, frequently asking for loans from his dad. Cory, his son with Rose, hopes to become a professional football player but his dad urges him in a more practical direction. As Troy goes on living his life, a series of bad decision isolates his loved ones.

As a first time director, Denzel Washington seems overly reverent of his source material. “Fences'” stage bound roots are all too obvious. Washington makes few attempts to disguise them. The film opens with a dolly shot connected to the back of a trash truck. There's a few lingering close-ups and one dramatic fade to black. Otherwise, “Fences” is composed mostly of people standing in simple locations – living rooms, back yards – and talking to each other. This is so prevalent that you can count the scenes set outside the Maxson's household on one hand. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. It just makes for a film that, even in its best moments, can be described as “stationary.” Considering one of Washington's additions to the story involves the incredibly cheesy sight of clouds in the shape of an angel, maybe sticking so closely to the play was a good idea.

Maybe the most accurate synopsis possible for “Fences” would be “Shitty man is shitty to people.” Troy Maxson is an asshole. He takes out his frustrations with his own life on his family. He constantly criticizes Lyons' decisions, jerking him around and treating him like shit. He's not much better to his other son, as he attempts to control Cory's life and forbids the boy from pursuing his dream. By far his biggest dick move is his decision to cheat on his wife. His rationalization for the affair – that it makes him happy – and refusal to end it is especially egregious. Wilson's script makes it clear that Maxson's behavior didn't arise out of a vacuum. His father was abusive and tried to rape his childhood girlfriend. The racial atmosphere of his youth genuinely held him back. But he's still an asshole. The film doesn't excuse him for his shitty behavior... Up until the very end, with a conclusion that was apparently softened from the play.

Having said that, “Fences” is worth seeing for its performance. Yes, Washington is fantastic in the part. Wilson's dialogue rolls smoothly off his tongue. Washington vividly brings the words to life, especially a series of rambling anecdotes. Some of them are light-hearted, such as a tall tale about wrestling deaths. Others are deeply serious, such as a recollection of the mistakes Troy has made in his life. As strong as Washington is, Viola Davis steals the film. She gets her own monologue, when faced with Troy's infidelity, that shakes the film to its core and moves the audience. Even the supporting cast is quite good. Stephen Henderson shows a quiet humor and lived-in familiarly with the part of Bono, Troy's friend. Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby are solid as the sons. Only Mykelti Williamson, as Troy's mentally ill brother, hits a false note. His acting, and really the whole character, eases towards mawkish.

“Fences” is one of those movies that I didn't really enjoy but I have to respect the craft that went into it. The cast is great and the production is handsome, if limited. Washington doesn't show off very many cinematic tricks but he respectfully presents the material. The movie is ultimately a showcase for August Wilson's script, a challenging and clearly important work of fiction that can be read from a number of different angles. Which makes it the filmic equivalent of chewable vitamins: Good for you but not very tasty. This might be one of the most unenthusiastic sevens I've ever handed out but it's a seven nevertheless. [7/10]

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