Review: ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,’ starring Kunal Nayyar, Lucy Hale, Christina Hendricks, David Arquette and Scott Foley

December 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kunal Nayyar and Lucy Hale in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry”

Directed by Hans Canosa

Culture Representation: Taking place over 14 years, primarily on the fictional Alice Island, Massachusetts, and briefly in Providence, Rhode Island, the dramatic film “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A cynical bookstore owner, who is depressed over the death of his wife and his financial problems, gets a new outlook on life when he adopts an abandoned child and falls in love with a sales agent who works for a book publisher. 

Culture Audience: “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based and will appeal to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and sloppily constructed dramas.

Pictured in front: Kunal Nayyar, Christina Hendricks and Scott Foley in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” should have been titled “The Lifeless Story of A.J. Fikry.” It’s a weak, boring and jumbled mess with confused tones and unanswered questions. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a weepy melodrama or a romantic dramedy—and ultimately fails at being either or both. Viewers will learn almost nothing about the movie’s self-pitying title character except that he likes to whine a lot when his life doesn’t go the way he wants.

Directed by Hans Canosa, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is based on Gabrielle Zevin’s 2014 novel of the same name. Zevin wrote the lumbering screenplay for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” as if it were a book with many chapters removed instead of a cohesive and enjoyable story. It certainly looks like Zevin might have been too close to the source material to not have better judgment in deciding what would work and what would not work in a movie adaptation of the book. There are too many times in the movie where a subplot is introduced and then left to dangle undeveloped.

Part of the problem is how choppy the timeline is in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” which takes place over 14 years. The movie spends too much time showing repetitive scenes in one part of A.J. Fikry’s life and then rushes through other parts of his life that needed more screen time—or at least more substance or explanation. It’s this disjointed approach to the movie that eventually sinks it and will be a turnoff for a lot of viewers.

In the beginning of the film, bookstore owner A.J. Fikry (played by Kunal Nayyar) is living a miserable and lonely life on the fictional Alice Island, Massachusetts, which has the population of a small town. And no one loves to talk about how unhappy A.J. is more than A.J., who complains about his life to anyone who’ll listen. His narcissism immediately makes him a very annoying character.

A.J., who lives alone, is a 39-year-old widower who is still in deep despair over the death of his wife. (It’s not made clear in the movie how long she’s been dead.) Grieving over the death of a spouse is understandable. The problem is that A.J. takes his negative feelings out on the customers in his small store (which is called Island Books) by being very rude to them. His excuse? “Since my wife died, I hate my work,” A.J. tells a doctor when A.J. ends up in an urgent care clinic after A.J. has a panic attack.

A.J. is also depressed because his store is close to going out of business. A.J. blames it on the popularity of e-books. But it’s obvious that A.J.’s lousy customer service has a lot to do with driving customers away. A.J. repeatedly gripes to people that that he’s “poor,” when he’s really not. He’s a middle-class person having financial problems. Being “poor” is worrying about how to pay for life essentials, such as food and basic shelter. A.J. doesn’t have that problem.

A.J. is depicted as a borderline alcoholic who drinks too much wine until he passes out when he’s home alone. His diet consists mainly of boxed frozen dinners. All of this is supposed to make viewers feel sorry for A.J., but he’s often so obnoxious, it will be difficult for people watching this movie to see what’s so interesting about this irritable character.

The beginning of the movie shows A.J. being visited at his store by a book-publishing sales agent named Amelia “Amy” Loman (played by Lucy Hale), who is 30 years old, and who works from her home in Providence, Rhode Island. The movie mentions later that Alice Island is a five-hour trip one way from Providence, and can be accessed by ferry. As soon as Amelia and A.J. have their first conversation, it’s obvious that they will later become each other’s love interest. We’ve seen this formula many times already: A future couple meets for the first time, and one person is standoffish and dismissive to the other, but they have a spark of attraction that gets ignited later.

Amelia has a perky personality that gets a little deflated when she tries and fails to get A.J. to buy a memoir called “The Late Bloomer.” Amelia explains that the author of the book is an 80-year-old man named Leon Friedman, who got married for the first time at age 78. Sadly, his wife died of cancer three years later. This movie is so poorly written, the math doesn’t add up in Leon’s story. Leon supposedly wrote the book after his wife died, which means that he would be at least 81 years old, not 80. Leon and “The Late Bloomer” become another ill-conceived and unnecessary subplot shown later in the movie.

Amelia says in her sales pitch about “The Late Bloomer” book: “I know this is a small book, but readers could fall in love with it the way they fell in love with ‘Angela’s Ashes’ or ‘Tuesdays With Morrie.'” A.J. tells Amelia in no uncertain terms that he’s not interested in buying copies of “The Late Bloomer” because he says the book sounds dull and “intolerable.” And in a very jaded tone of voice, A.J. then proceeds to name a long list of book genres that he doesn’t like (including memoirs), thereby making it clear that A.J. hates most types of books.

Why does A.J. own a bookstore if he has disdain for most books? He wants to sell the store, but he doesn’t think he’ll find any buyers who’ll pay a purchase price that he needs to make a profit. A.J. has a financial safety net that he plans to use to get rid of his money problems, but he runs into a setback for this plan.

A.J. has a rare first-edition copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” a book collection of poems that was first published in 1827. A.J. estimates that the book is worth a price that should get him several hundred thousand dollars if he sold the book. He’s so proud of the book, for a period of time, he kept it in on display in his store before deciding to keep it locked up in his home.

One evening, a drunken A.J. takes the book out of a locked storage display case in his home and says out loud to the book: “Cheers, you piece of crap.” The next morning, after waking up from a drunken stupor, A.J. notices that the book is missing. He looks everywhere for it in his home and is convinced it was stolen by someone who knows how the valuable the book is.

A.J. goes to the local police station to report that the book has been stolen. The person who takes the report is Alice Island’s police chief, whose only name mentioned in the movie is his last name: Lambiase (played by David Arquette), who is sympathetic but a little skeptical that the book was stolen. Nothing else of value was taken from A.J.’s home, and there were no signs of an intruder.

Because Alice Island is a small community, Lambiase already knows about A.J.’s reputation for being a heavy drinker. And so, Lambiase takes the theft report as a formality, but he hints that he thinks A.J. could have drunkenly misplaced the book somewhere in A.J.’s home. (It’s eventually revealed what happened to the book.)

The movie then shambles along with a lot of tedious and meandering scenes showing A.J. being a grouch, as well as the tension-filled relationships that A.J. has with his deceased wife’s sister Ismay Evans (played by Christina Hendricks) and Ismay’s husband. Ismay, who is pregnant in the beginning of the movie, is married to an arrogant and famous novelist named Daniel Parish (played by Scott Foley), who is very flirtatious with his female fans. Daniel is supposedly the closest thing that A.J. has to a friend, but Daniel and A.J. act like they don’t like each other very much.

Ismay isn’t too happy with A.J. because she thinks he’s “self-destructive” and has no friends. Ismay believes that A.J. is disrespecting the memory of her deceased sister by leading a life of such self-sabotaging misery. When A.J. tells Ismay that his valuable Edgar Allan Poe book has been stolen, Ismay says that there could be any number of reasons for why the book is missing. She tells A.J. that maybe he was sleepwalking, and he accidentally tossed the book in the ocean.

Soon after his book goes missing and A.J.’s financial woes get worse, he’s at the bookstore and is ready to close it for the night when he finds an abandoned and adorable 2-year-old girl named Maya (played by Charlotte Thanh Theresin) who has been left at the door. Maya has been left with a note written by her single mother, who says she can no longer take care of Maya, and asks the owner of the store to make sure that Maya gets a good home.

Why did Maya’s mother leave her child at A.J.’s bookstore? In the note, Maya’s mother says that it’s because she grew up loving books and figured that whoever owned the bookstore would be someone trustworthy. Maya and her mother were actually in the store a few days earlier. But because of his awful customer service skills, he barely noticed them when Maya’s mother asked for his help in finding a book. Maya’s mother eventually left the store without buying anything.

Maya was abandoned at A.J.’s bookstore at around 9 p.m. on a Friday, and A.J. brings Maya to the local police station. Ismay happens to be with him too. Lambiase says that the Massachusetts Department of Family and Health Services can’t be contacted until Monday. A.J. doesn’t think it’s right to leave Maya at the police station. Ismay is having a later-in-life pregnancy and doesn’t want any stress to complicate the pregnancy by taking care of a 2-year-old child. And so, A.J. surprises himself by offering to let Maya stay at his home for the night. He admits he doesn’t know how to take care of kids her age, but he thinks he can try.

You know where this is going, of course, especially if you’ve seen the trailer for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.” A.J. decides to keep the child, and he raises her as a single father. Before that happens, a few days after Maya was found abandoned, Lambiase and his deputy co-workers discover the dead body of Maya’s mother on a beach. She died of an apparent suicide. Her name was Marian Wallace (played by Lizzy Brooks), and she was a 22-year-old student and champion swimmer attending Harvard University on a swimming scholarship.

The next thing viewers know, it’s 14 months later, and A.J. has adopted 3-year-old Maya (played by Estella Kahiha), who is a playful and energetic child. A.J.’s time as a foster parent and the adoption process for Maya are completely erased from the story. The movie’s brief depiction of A.J. not knowing how to cope with a crying 2-year-old Maya on the first night she’s in his home doesn’t count as showing him spending quality time with this child. It’s a very clumsy fast-forward to the story to go from A.J. finding this abandoned girl to then adopting her.

How did a depressed, borderline alcoholic with financial problems get approved for this single-parent adoption? The movie never explains that either, but it’s implied that no one else wanted to take care of Maya. His financial problems apparently went away, because by the time Maya is shown at age 5 (played by Jordyn McIntosh), A.J. still owns the bookstore, and he never talks about being broke, like he does at the beginning of the movie. His drinking problem also magically disappears too, because it’s never mentioned or shown again.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” then takes another abrupt turn when the Maya subplot gets sidelined for a long and uninteresting stretch of the movie where A.J. and Amelia have an up-and-down, long-distance courtship that starts off very awkwardly. A.J. is attracted to Amelia and wants to date her, but she’s engaged to a man named Brett Brewer, who is in the military. Brett is never seen or heard in the movie, which is an obvious sign that the relationship isn’t going to last.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” than gets distracted with another subplot about the unhappy marriage of Ismay and Daniel. Viewers might be wondering, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t Ismay pregnant in the beginning of the movie? Where’s the child?” It’s later explained what happened to her pregnancy, but this explanation is dropped into the last third of movie when it should have been mentioned much earlier. This is the type of unimpressive and choppy storytelling in the movie.

One of the biggest flaws in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is how it never tells anything about A.J. Fikry’s backstory. Viewers never find out where he grew up, if he has any family members, or how and why he fell in love with his wife. It’s also never clear if it was a longtime dream of his to own a bookstore, or if he just fell into it. His dislike for most books that he ranted about to Amelia in the beginning of the movie is never really mentioned again.

The movie has some acknowledgement of Amelia’s family and backstory, but Amelia is depicted in a shallow way too. During their courtship, she doesn’t seem to care to find out more about A.J.’s family, his background, or how he’s taking care of Maya, nor does A.J. share that information. Amelia’s emotional baggage (she’s still not completely over her father dying when she was a child) is briefly mentioned.

Amelia has an opinionated widowed mother named Margaret Loman (played by Chandra Michaelsa), who eventually meets A.J. when she goes to Alice Island with Amelia for a visit. The movie never really succeeds in its efforts to convince viewers that A.J. and Amelia fall deeply in love. Amelia and A.J. seem like a couple that started out as friends and then ended up together out of loneliness and perhaps some emotional desperation.

Small but important details are completely ignored. For example, while A.J. and Amelia go on dates with each other, it’s never explained who’s taking care of Maya. She is never shown having a babysitter or nanny. A.J.’s parenthood is a flimsy plot device that has no real substance, based on how little screen time is given to Maya in her childhood. It isn’t until the last third of the movie, when Maya is 14 years old (played by Blaire Brown), that she is shown to have something close to a personality.

The movie then takes another drastic shift in tone for the most tearjerking part of the story in the last third of the movie, which is just a tangle of soap-opera-level plot twists. Tearjerking scenes work best when viewers feel like they’ve gotten to know the characters well enough to care about them. The character of A.J. seems very hollow, considering the movie reveals very little information about who he is as a whole human being. It’s like he dropped out of the sky to be put in an uninspiring and sloppily made movie.

The romance part of the story is very lackluster, since Nayyar and Hale do not have believable chemistry with each other as A.J. and Amelia. The cast members’ performances aren’t terrible, but they aren’t special either. The overall direction and film editing are amateurish, as if the filmmakers had no specific vision for the story, and just cobbled together a mishmash of scenes, with the hope that everything would hold people’s interest. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a title that suggests the movie is the story of a fascinating person. Unfortunately, A.J. is a protagonist whose life in this disappointing movie is the equivalent of a book with many blank pages in between a lot of rambling.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie’s release on digital and VOD was on November 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Emancipation’ (2022), starring Will Smith

December 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Will Smith and Ben Foster in “Emancipation” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios)

“Emancipation” (2022)

Directed by Antonie Fuqua

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Louisiana in 1863, the dramatic film “Emancipation” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After the Emancipation Proclamation frees enslaved people in the United States, a formerly enslaved African American man goes on a harrowing journey trying to escape from enslavers who still want to keep him and other people in captivity. 

Culture Audience: “Emancipation” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and anyone interested in watching an intense Civil War drama inspired by a real person.

Imani Pullum, Will Smith, Jeremiah Friedlander, Landon Chase Dubois, Charmaine Bingwa and Jordyn McIntosh in “Emancipation” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios)

Will Smith gives one of the most emotionally raw performances of his career in “Emancipation,” an intense drama that shows the abuse endured by a formerly enslaved man fighting for freedom and his family during the U.S. Civil War. Most people who see “Emancipation” will know in advance that it’s a movie that depicts human enslavement and the brutality that comes with this crime. And many people watching “Emancipation” might have seen other films or TV shows covering the same subject matter in detailed ways. However, even with that prior knowledge, viewers will feel the potent impact of “Emancipation,” not just as a movie about the Civil War era but also as an inspirational survival story in the midst of cruel human-rights violations.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Emancipation” is inspired by a formerly enslaved African American man only known as Gordon, who was photographed for the media in 1863, while he was undergoing a medical exam as a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. A photo of a shirtless Gordon showing his back covered with massive whip scars (that are so large, they look like tree branches) garnered him the nickname “Whipped Peter,” when the photos were published in Harper’s Weekly. The “scourged back” photo is credited with spreading more awareness about the atrocities of slavery and increasing the movement for the Union Army to defeat the pro-slavery Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War.

Gordon’s life story is only known in bits and pieces. Therefore, much of “Emancipation” (whose screenplay was written by Bill Collage) is fictional but inspired by Gordon’s real story and real events that happened during the Civil War. He is given the name Peter in the movie “Emancipation,” which takes place in 1863 in Louisiana, and begins shortly after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This federal decree banned slavery in the U.S. and legally declared that all enslaved people in the U.S. were automatically free.

Of course, the people who depended on enslavement for their businesses did not want enslaved people to know about the Emancipation Proclamation. “Emancipation” depicts this societal problem where parts of the U.S. that sided with the Confederate Army and wanted to secede from the U.S. also refused to abide by the Emancipation Proclamation because they did not consider it a valid government decree. “Emancipation” shows in often-disturbing details how formerly enslaved people were caught in this crossfire.

The opening scene of “Emancipation” shows Peter (played by Smith) in a seemingly tranquil family setting. He’s washing the feet of his beloved wife Dodienne (played by Charmaine Bingwa), while their four children are nearby in the room. Their children’s ages range from about 5 years old to 14 years old. The children are daughter Betsy (played by Imani Pullum), who’s the eldest child; son Scipion (played by Jeremiah Friedlander); son Peter (played by Landon Chase Dubois), nicknamed Little Peter; and daughter Laurette (played by Jordyn McIntosh).

Peter and Dodienne are originally from Haiti, so they know what it was like to be free people before being unwillingly brought to the U.S. as enslaved people. They are very religious and believe in the power of prayer. In the opening scene where Peter is with his family, he says, “What can a mere man do to me? The Lord is with me. He is my strength and my defense. He has become my salvation.”

The family will soon have their inner strength severely tested when Peter is forced to relocate to another plantation in Clinton, Louisiana. He tries to fight back in self-defense, but he’s outnumbered and assaulted for defending himself. Peter’s wife and kids are helpless and sobbing as Peter is taken away.

During the ride to the labor camp, Peter and the other men who are with him see the heads of other African American men gruesomely displayed on tree sticks that line the road. It’s an ominous indication of what can happen to “runners” (people running from enslavement) or any black person who is murdered for whatever reason by a white supremacist racist. Fair warning to sensitive viewers: “Emancipation” has a lot of graphic violence that isn’t exploitative, but it might be too disturbing for some viewers.

One of the criticisms that “Emancipation” might get is that it portrays Peter as “too saintly,” perhaps because Peter is so vocal about his religious beliefs. But anyone with that criticism didn’t pay attention enough to the movie, because Peter actually is no pious pushover, since he doesn’t hesitate to dole out some violence when he absolutely has to do so in self-defense. The movie also shows how Peter’s experiences change him over time: He doesn’t lose his humanity, but he becomes hardened and reaches low points of utter despair.

Peter has been taken to a plantation owned by the cold-hearted Jim Fassell (played by Ben Foster), who inherited the property from his widowed father. One of the men who arrived in the same group as Peter is named Tomas (played by Jabbar Lewis), who is forcibly branded on his face with the letter “J” (for Jim), as Peter and the other enslaved men nearby watch in horror. Jim is described by one of the men as “one of the biggest hunters, day or night.” And the prey that Jim hunts is human.

At first, Peter tries to be as religiously optimistic as possible, even when the captured men around him have lost faith in a higher power and think Peter is being too naïve or downright delusional. When Peter finds out from Tomas that Tomas doesn’t have any family members or friends to think of in rough times, Peter gives this over-simplistic advice: “Then remember, this is just work. God is with us.”

One day, Peter overhears one of Jim’s sadistic employees named Howard (played by Steven Ogg) tell another employee that Abraham Lincoln has freed the enslaved people of America. Peter then sets a plan in motion to escape with some other formerly enslaved men to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he knows there are Union Army troops. It isn’t long before the word gets out about the Emancipation Proclamation, leading to formerly enslaved people on Jim’s plantation to engage in a massive uprising and escape.

Peter runs into the swampy woods with three younger men in their 20s: Tomas, John (played by Michael Luwoye) and Gordon (played by Gilbert Owuor). Jim and two sidekicks are in pursuit on horseback with two attack dogs. Jim’s lackeys are a sleazebag named Harrington (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins) and a traitorous African American named Knowls (played by Aaron Moten). The rest of “Emancipation” shows what happens during this terrifying journey.

Robert Richardson’s sweeping cinematography of “Emancipation” has all the markings of an epic war film, but the hues are often awash in gray and brown, as a reflection of this very grim and bleak story. Fuqua’s direction does not let the tension let up as soon as Peter escapes and faces life-or-death situations from humans and wild animals. Smith’s performance as Peter is riveting in expressing heartbreak and hope. It’s not a dialogue-heavy film, because Peter is not very talkative, and while he’s hiding out, he often spends a lot of time alone. However, Smith is able to poignantly express much of the anguish, fear, bravery and faith that define his “Emancipation” character.

As chief antagonist Jim in “Emancipation,” Foster has the most conspicuous of the movie’s supporting roles. Foster does a skillful version of the “evil slave master” villain that’s been seen in many other movies and TV shows about enslavement. There’s a standout scene where Jim describes a childhood memory of his enslaved nanny, and his coldly hateful monologue encapsulates the fear and loathing that white supremacists have about people of other races being treated as equals to white people.

“Emancipation” is not an easy film to watch for a lot of viewers. Some people might also give criticism because they think there are already too many movies and TV shows about the trauma of racist enslavement. However, “Emancipation” is respectful of this serious issue without glossing over the harsh realities, even though some viewers will inevitably complain that this movie from Hollywood filmmakers has Hollywood movie characteristics. It’s not a documentary, but “Emancipation” is a necessary history lesson that gives people an idea of what many other formerly enslaved people in America had to do to survive in a nation coming to terms with its shameful involvement in slavery.

Apple Studios will release “Emancipation” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie will premiere on Apple TV+ on December 9, 2022.

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