Review: ‘American Fiction,’ starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown

November 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction” (Photo by Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

“American Fiction”

Directed by Cord Jefferson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and in Massachusetts, the comedy/drama film “American Fiction” (based on the novel “Erasure”) features an African American and white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An author/professor, who happens to be African American, creates a fake persona as a fugitive criminal to write a book that has racially demeaning stereotypes of African Americans, and when the book becomes a hit, he has to decide how far he will go in living this lie.

Culture Audience: “American Fiction” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movies that take sharp aim at how people use racial stereotypes to damage others and to make profits.

Sterling K. Brown in “American Fiction” (Photo by Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

“American Fiction” takes a smart and satirical look at how racial stereotypes are enabled and perpetuated. Jeffrey Wright gives a standout performance as an author who has to choose between keeping his integrity by being his authentic self, or being a demeaning racial stereotype for money. This sharp and incisive movie is also an emotionally touching portrayal of a family trying not to fall apart when dealing with serious illness and grief.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson makes an admirable feature-film directorial debut with “American Fiction.” Jefferson (a former journalist and an Emmy-winning writer of HBO’s 2019 limited series “Watchmen”) adapted the “American Fiction” screenplay from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” “American Fiction” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie won the People’s Choice Award, the festival’s top prize. “American Fiction” has since made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival, where Jefferson received Urbanworld’s Visionary Award.

From the very beginning of “American Fiction,” viewers see that protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Everett (played by Wright) isn’t afraid to possibly offend some people, in order to express his point of view. Monk, who lives and works in Los Angeles, is a literature professor at an unnamed university. During a class session, he has written on the board the name of a book that has the “n” word (derogatory term for a black person) in the book’s title.

Monk, who is African American and in his 50s, has assigned the book as required reading for his class, but one of his students named Brittany (played by Skyler Wright) objects to the title of the book being on the board during the class session, because Brittany says that the “n” word is offensive to her. Most of the students in this class are white, including Brittany, but there are some people of color (including some black people) who are students in the class too.

Brittany says she doesn’t want to see that word during the class session, so she asks Monk to erase the word from the board. Monk refuses and tells Brittany sternly about how he feels about the “n” word being in the title of the book: “With all due respect, I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can too.” Brittany then storms out of the class in a tearful huff, as Monk can be heard shouting at the students to focus on his lecture.

The next scene shows Monk having a meeting in an office room with his supervisor Leo (played by John Ales) and two of his faculty peers named Mandel (played by Patrick Fischler) and Gilda (played by Carmen Cusack), who all tell Monk this latest complaint against him has crossed a line where he has to be held accountable. It’s mentioned that Monk previously offended a student of German heritage by asking the student if the student has Nazi family members. Monk is defiant and gets into a little bit an argument with Mandel, who insults Monk for not having any recently published work.

Monk retorts by saying that he’s working on a book for a publishing house named Echo. It’s not enough to impress Leo, who orders Monk to go on a leave of absence that includes an already planned trip to Boston to go to the Massachusetts Festival of Books. Boston is Monk’s hometown, but he tells his colleagues that he hates Boston. It’s probably one of the reasons why he was sent there.

At the Massachusetts Festival of Books, Monk is a speaker on a panel that is sparsely attended. (There are less than 10 people in the audience.) At the end of the panel, when he comments to a fellow panelist on the low attendance for their session, Monk finds out that a much more popular Q&A at the festival was scheduled at about the same time as his panel. This interview is still taking place when Monk goes to the room to see what’s so special about this Q&A.

In the packed room, the solo speaker who is being interviewed is Sintara Golden (played by Issa Rae), an African American author of a best-selling novel called “We’s Lives in the Ghetto,” which is a racially demeaning story about uneducated and poor African Americans in a crime-ridden area. Sintara reads from the book and gets enthusiastic applause from the racially mixed audience. Monk is offended and jealous that this type of book is a hit, while he is having trouble finding a publisher for his most recent intellectual book, which is a contemporary re-imagining of Aeschylus’ “The Persians.”

While in the Boston area, Monk makes reluctant contact with the family he has barely kept in touch with over the past several years. Monk is a never-married bachelor with no children. His widowed mother and two younger siblings are his closest relatives. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that there are many reasons why Monk has been avoiding his family. Monk’s family has a lot of secrets that are eventually revealed throughout the movie.

Several people in Monk’s dysfunctional family are doctors. His deceased father was a medical doctor. His younger sister Lisa Ellison (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor at a clinic called Boston Family Planning. It’s a clinic that provides abortion services, which isn’t said out loud in the story, but it’s implied, based on conversations about how Lisa’s job can be dangerous and controversial. Lisa gives Monk a car ride back to the family home in Boston.

Lisa is divorced with no children. She is also a caretaker for their mother Agnes Ellison (played by Leslie Uggams), who is showing signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For example, Agnes forgets that Lisa is divorced. Agnes has a loyal and friendly housekeeper named Lorraine (played by Myra Lucretia Taylor), who is in her 60s. Lorraine is treated like a member of the family.

Monk’s other younger sibling is Clifford, nicknamed Cliff (played by Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon who is a divorced father. Cliff got divorced because his wife found out that Cliff is gay. Cliff is now dating men in the gay singles scene and abusing cocaine. It’s also revealed in the movie that Cliff has an inferiority complex and feels competitive with Monk because Monk was always treated as the favorite child by their domineering father.

Agnes has a house in Boston and a beach house in an unnamed city in Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard region. Through a series of circumstances, the family members are staying at this beach house for much of the movie. During their stay, Monk meets an intelligent and opinionated neighbor named Coraline (played by Erika Alexander), a public defender attorney who respects Monk’s talent and becomes his love interest. However, Coraline has her own messy marital situation. She’s in the midst divorcing her husband Jelani (played by Michael Jibrin), who still lives with her for financial reasons.

“American Fiction” skillfully weaves all of Monk’s challenges that he faces in his personal life and in his career. At the same time that he’s going through some emotionally taxing family issues, he’s having problems finding a publisher for his latest academically inclined book. As a sarcastic joke, Monk decides to use an alias called Stagg R. Leigh to write a racially demeaning novel called “My Pafology” (intentional misspelling of “Pathology”) about African Americans speaking bad English and being involved in crime. (The book’s title is later changed to a curse word.) A thug character named Van Go Jenkins is the narrator/protagonist of “My Pafology.”

In a story-within-a-story construct, “American Fiction” occasionally depicts characters from the “My Pafology” novel coming to life as Monk is writing the book. In one of the book’s chapters, Van Go Jenkins (played by Okieriete Onaodowan) commits an act of violence against an older man named Willy the Wonker (played by Keith David) in Willy’s home. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see why Monk chose to write this scenario, considering the complicated relationship that Monk’s father had with his wife and children.

Much to the surprise of Monk and his book agent Arthur (played by John Ortiz), “My Pafology” quickly gets an offer of $750,000 from a book publishing company named Thompson Watt that rejected the intellectual book that Monk wrote under Monk’s real name. It just so happens that Monk needs the money because Agnes has to be put in an assisted living home, and Monk is the only one in the family who is willing to pay for it.

As already revealed in the trailer for “American Fiction,” Monk creates the Stagg R. Leigh persona to be an ex-con who was in prison for violent crimes. Monk also fabricates a story that Stagg is currently a fugitive from the law, which is the excuse he uses for why Stagg has to be so mysterious. Monk and Arthur also tell Thompson Watt publishing executive Paula Baderman (played by Miriam Shor) that Stagg R. Leigh is not the author’s real name because of his “fugitive” status. Instead of being wary of doing a deal with a fugitive criminal, Paula thinks it’s intriguing because she thinks this angle will sell more books.

The lies get more complicated after “My Pafology” is published and becomes a hit. On the one hand, Monk feels elated that he has the commercial success that he always wanted, but on the other hand, he feels ashamed by what he had to do to get this success. It isn’t long before Stagg is taking meetings with a Hollywood filmmaker named Wiley Valdespino (played by Adam Brody), who wants to make “My Pafology” into a movie.

“American Fiction” pokes fun at people who think that they’re being hip and progressive for supporting a book like “My Pafology,” when they don’t know or don’t care that this type of book reinforces a negative stereotype that African Americans and other black people are inferior and have lives defined by violence, poverty, crime and/or trauma. Although these issues are undoubtedly struggles for many people, it’s racially problematic to stereotype one race as largely experiencing those struggles. Through characters such as Monk, Agnes and Coraline, “American Fiction” shows the reality that most African Americans are not poor, uneducated or criminals.

There is diversity among African Americans that is not always acknowledged in entertainment that wants to keep African American-oriented entertainment focused on violence, poverty, crime and/or trauma. And when people who don’t know many African Americans get their ideas about African Americans from these negative stereotypes, it perpetuates a lot of racism. At one point in “American Fiction,” book agent Arthur comments about how black people are often represented in the media and entertainment: “White people think they want the truth. They just want to be absolved.”

The very talented ensemble cast in “American Fiction” should be given a lot of credit for embodying their characters with the right mix of dramatic realism and (when appropriate) pitch-perfect comedic timing. Jefferson’s writing is clever and engaging, while his directing shows a knack for juggling multiple storylines at the same time. “American Fiction” is not a movie that singles out one race as “better” than another. Instead, it’s a blistering but honest examination of how people of all races can be complicit in perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, often for selfish reasons.

Through “American Fiction,” Jefferson has crafted a rare social commentary movie that not only invites people to laugh at these problems without feeling guilty about this laughter but also provokes people enough to show how these problems affect people in damaging ways. “American Fiction” doesn’t get preachy about what can be done about these problems. However, this very worthy adaptation of “Erasure” shows that no matter how much legislative progress can be made in civil rights, change also has to come from within people who are willing to make improvements in their own lives.

Orion Pictures will release “American Fiction” in select U.S. cinemas on December 15, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Biopshere’ (2023), starring Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown

September 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass in “Biosphere” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Biosphere” (2023)

Directed by Mel Eslyn

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi comedy/drama film “Biosphere” has cast of two people (one white person and one African American) representing the upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: While living in a biosphere during an apocalypse that has wiped out most of the human population, a U.S. president and his scientist best friend try to figure out ways to survive and procreate.

Culture Audience: “Biosphere” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown and stores about apocalypse survival.

Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown in “Biosphere” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The sci-fi dramedy “Biosphere” would’ve been better as a short film, because some of the story drags with repetition. However, this post-apocalyptic movie with a two-person cast has good acting and provocative issues about human reproduction and gender. Some of the scenes in the movie look like they’re intended to make some viewers uncomfortable. “Biosphere” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Festival.

Directed by Mel Eslyn (who co-wrote the “Biosphere” screenplay with Mark Duplass), “Biosphere” could have easily been a stage play, since there is really only one setting for the movie: inside a biosphere during an apocalypse. The biosphere is in an unnamed U.S. city.

There are also only two people in the cast: Billy (played by Duplass) and Ray (played by Sterling K. Brown), who have been friends ever since they were students at Yale University. Billy is the president of the United States. Ray is a biochemist who has also been Billy’s scientifc advisor. Ray (who is very calm and logical) likes to remind Billy (who is jittery and neurotic) that Ray is more intelligent than Billy.

In this dialogue-heavy movie, viewers find out that Billy caused a worldwide disaster by “blowing everything up by mistake.” This apocalypse has destroyed any means of mass communication. It is also unsafe to go outside. Billy and Ray have been living in this biosphere (which can supply and recycle oxygen) that Ray created for this type of emergency. Because they have no communication with the outside world, Ray and Billy don’t know how many human survivors are left.

Ray and Billy have been living off of plants that grow in the biosphere, as well as some packaged food that will soon run out. They also have been raising fish to eat. One day, something strange happens: Ray notices that the male fish in the tank have turned into female fish. With no male fish left, the fish cannot reproduce, so Billy and Ray worry about how they are going to get more fish when the fish supply runs out.

There’s also another issue: Ray and Blly don’t know how long they will be stuck in this biosphere. They wonder if they are the last people on Earth, then how will the human race continue? That is the core issue of “Biosphere,” but it takes a while before the movie gets there. Viewers can expect to hear a lot of bickering and debates between Billy and Ray in this movie. Ray and Billy also have moments of genuine bonding that strengthen their friendship.

The acting performances in “Biosphere” are interesting to watch for the human dynamics between these two best friends who are stuck together in a bleak survival situation. To relieve stress, they exercise by jogging inside the biosphere or by reading. There’s eventually a solution to the reproductive problem, which is the part of the movie that is intended to make some viewers squirm. “Biosphere” is a movie that appears to be lightweight on the surface, but it brings up serious issues that will make viewers wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation as Ray and Billy.

IFC Films released “Biosphere” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 7, 2023.

Review: ‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,’ starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown

August 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/Pinky Promise LLC/Focus Features)

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

Directed by Adamma Ebo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Atlanta, the comedic film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A megachurch’s preacher and his wife strive to make a comeback after his fall from grace due to sexual misconduct scandals.

Culture Audience: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, and will appeal to viewers who like mockumentaries that are satires of people who place more value on fame and fortune than on honesty and morality.

Conphidance and Nicole Beharie in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/Pinky Promise LLC/Focus Features)

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a comedic mockumentary that adeptly skewers religious hypocrisy, vanity and greed in megachurch culture. The movie’s pacing drags in some parts, but Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown captivate with their lead performances as disgraced megachurch couple Trinitie Childs and Lee-Curtis Childs. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” also offers bittersweet observations that are examples of the religious adage, “All that glitters is not gold.”

Written and directed by Adamma Ebo, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is Ebo’s feature-film directorial debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s producers include Hall, Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, Adamma Ebo and her identical twin Adanne Ebo. Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. It’s a movie that puts a spotlight on the impact of religious leaders on African American communities and what can happen if one of those leaders is knocked down from a pedestal and tries to get back up on top again.

Although some things in the movie might seem over-the-top ridiculous, anyone who has followed news about scandal-plagued religious leaders will know that many of their antics, denials and posturings are very close to what’s portrayed in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” The movie gets its title from several scenes in the movie where Trinitie, at Lee-Curtis’ persuasion, holds up a sign that reads “Honk for Jesus” to passing cars on the street, in desperate attempts to attract followers. Over time, Lee-Curtis convinces Trinitie to degrade herself when holding up the “Honk for Jesus” sign, such as telling her to shake her rear end in a sexually suggestive manner.

Beyond the obvious comedic parts, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a searing indictment of the patriarchal ways of megachurch culture and how women are expected to be subservient to men. In the movie, Lee-Curtis is the one who caused the scandal that lead to his megachurch’s downfall, but his loyal wife Trinitie is the one who gets the brunt of the pressure to redeem their reputation. Lee-Curtis makes demands on Trinitie that slowly chip away at her soul, and Trinitie has to decide if her marriage to Lee-Curtis is worth this erosion of her self-esteem and self-worth.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” begins with Trinitie doing a sit-down interview by herself in the empty building of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, which Trinitie and Lee-Curtis founded but whose congregation has drastically shrunk from 26,000 members to five loyal members. The church’s followers have diminished, but Lee-Curtis has accumulated a lot of personal wealth that he and Trinitie are determined to keep. Trinitie and Lee-Curtis not only believe that they deserve this wealth but that it’s also God’s destined plan for them.

A documentarian named Anita Bonet (who is heard occasionally in the movie but never seen on camera) is directing a documentary about Trinitie and Lee-Curtis and their attempt to make a comeback after Lee-Curtis experienced several accusations of sexual misconduct. Several of Lee-Curtis’ accusers are suing him over these allegations. The details of these allegations are revealed about halfway through the movie but won’t be mentioned in this review.

Trinitie says in her interview: “Every woman is not built for the responsibility of being a first lady. Lee-Curtis and I, we’re just going to the other side … You know, have you ever seen a rat go from the inside of a house to the outside of a house? They chew through. So, we’re going to gnaw through the hardest parts.”

Lee-Curtis is arrogant and unapologetic about his alleged misdeeds. He also has unwavering confidence that the couple’s comeback, which they plan to take place during the upcoming Easter Sunday, will be entirely successful. Over time, some cracks in his veneer of morality start to show, which should come as no surprise when considering many real-life religious leaders who go through scandals with former secrets that expose their hypocrisy.

The mockumentary includes interviews with Lee-Curtis, Trinitie, some of the couple’s supporters, some of the couple’s critics and people from the general public who are somewhat neutral. In addition, there are snippets of “archival” footage of Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church services in the couple’s heyday at the church. In one of his sermons, Lee-Curtis shows his homophobia by saying that the “homosexual agenda” is “disrespectful to marriage. Take it from me: I am the prophet with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous Bugatti.”

The Childs couple’s five loyal followers are Deacon Alastor Culpepper (played by Robert Yatta); his wife, Deaconess Culpepper (played by Greta Glenn, also known as Greta Marable Glenn); Kensington Straterly (played by Perris Drew), a Divinity School graduate student; Sapphire Devaughn (played by Crystal Alicia Garrett); and Aria Devaughn (played by Selah Kimbro Jones), Sapphire’s daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Kensington says, “Pastor Childs is ahead of his time. He’s a visionary.”

While Trinitie and Lee-Curtis try to win back their flock of followers, they have some competition: a polite younger pastor named Keon Sumpter (played by Conphidance) and his devoted wife Shakura Sumpter (played by Nicole Beharie), who want to form their own megachurch in Atlanta. The Sumpters have founded Heaven’s House Baptist Church, which has more than 1,000 congregants so far and has gained many new members who used to be congregants of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. And what a coincidence: Heaven’s House Baptist Church plans to have its grand opening on the same Easter Sunday that the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church plans to re-open.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” mines this megachurch rivalry for all of what it’s worth, but the more interesting power dynamics are between Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. There’s not enough shown about Keon and Shakura to get a handle on their true personalities. Keon and Shakura have the polish of religious people who don’t want to say a bad thing about anyone in public, but there’s no real indication of what Keon and Shakura are really like in private. The movie seems to suggest that Keon and Shakura have not yet been corrupted by greed and fame because Keon and Shakura aren’t at the megachurch level where Lee-Curtis and Trinitie used to be and which Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are trying to reclaim.

Some scenes in the movie work better than others. For example, a scene of Trinitie visiting a hat shop isn’t as funny as it could have been. A much better comedic scene is one where Trinitie and Lee-Curtis interact with their few remaining congregants at the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, in a pathetic attempt to pretend as if all is going well at the church. Another amusing scene shows the supposedly pious Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, who publicly preach about the evils of cursing, but privately in their car, they rap along to Crime Mob’s curse-filled song “Knuck If You Buck.”

There’s a sex scene in the movie that looks a little out of place because it’s the only scene that doesn’t look like it was filmed for a documentary. However, the purpose of this scene is made clear later in the movie when Lee-Curtis’ sex scandals are revealed in more detail. There are other clues that point to the nature of these sexual misconduct allegations and the damaging impact that Lee-Curtis’ actions have had on his accusers.

Lee-Curtis is very transparent in his ambitions, so his character is very easy to predict. Trinitie is less predictable and more interesting because she has moments where she looks like she begins to wonder if she made the right decision to “stand by her man.” There’s a very telling scene in the movie where Trinitie has breakfast with her mother Sabina (played by Avis-Marie Barnes), who gives advice that is an example of how sexist patriarchy is enabled and encouraged in the name of religious tradition.

Aside from certain aspects of church and religion, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” offers social commentary on what lengths people will go to, in order to pursue fame and fortune; create an “aspirational” wealthy image; and try to give the impression of having a “perfect” life when one’s life is actually falling apart. The characters in this movie just happen to be African American. However, the movie cleverly brings up issues that are timeless and relevant to any culture.

Focus Features will release “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on September 2, 2022.

Review: ‘The Rhythm Section,’ starring Blake Lively and Jude Law

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Blake Lively in "The Rhythm Section"
Blake Lively in “The Rhythm Section” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Rhythm Section”

Directed by Reed Morano

Culture Representation: This globe-trotting action film, which is about a woman who becomes an undercover assassin to avenge the deaths of her family, consists of predominantly white (with some African American and Asian) characters representing the middle and upper classes of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Culture Clash: The protagonist, an American who’s been living in the United Kingdom for several years, wants revenge against an international terrorist group that sets bombs to kill innocent people.

Culture Audience: “The Rhythm Section” will appeal mostly to fans of lead actress Blake Lively, but her myriad of disguises in the film can’t quite cover up the movie’s far-fetched plot.

Blake Lively and Jude Law in “The Rhythm Section” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

If you were to believe Hollywood’s version of what female assassins are like in action dramas, then you’d think that they’re all extremely good-looking, emotionally damaged women (with a past or present drug problem) who don’t have families and have to be a prostitute or “kept woman” to a rich and powerful man at least once, in order to get information or to get revenge. When an assassin/spy movie’s main character is a woman who’s new to the game, she’s almost always trained by a man.

She usually has sexual tension or an affair with her trainer or another man who has some kind of supervisor power over her. And there’s always an excuse to present her in a scantily clad outfit (such as lingerie) or possibly nude in the movie. It should come as no surprise that these movies about female assassins/spies who prostitute themselves are almost always written by men. Think about how many times James Bond, Jason Bourne or “Mission: Impossible’s” Ethan Hunt have had to show their naked private parts or play a male hooker in their movies. Exactly. Zero.

When you take all of these sexist movie stereotypes about female assassins/spies into consideration, “The Rhythm Section” really is just another predictable rehash of the same old formula that seemed fresh with 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” but has since been recycled so many times that movie audiences have rightfully become bored with it. Recent movie flops such as “Anna,” “Red Sparrow” and “Atomic Blonde” (with “The Rhythm Section” inevitably joining the list) are an indication that audiences are rejecting this concept that female assassins—no matter how badass they are in their gun-toting, disguise-changing ways—are still reduced to being sexpots who are following orders from men. With other more empowered action role models on screen, such as female superheroes, who needs these outdated portrayals of women who go undercover?

The main difference between “The Rhythm Section” and almost every female assassin/spy movie of this type is that “The Rhythm Section” is directed by a woman—Reed Morano, whose directing work on the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” earned her an Emmy Award. “The Rhythm Section” (which is a terrible title for an action movie) is based on the novel by Mark Burnell, who wrote the movie’s screenplay. It’s called “The Rhythm Section” because more than one character utters in the film: “Think of your heart as the drums and your breathing as the bass,” as a way to focus when they’re in a dangerous situation. Such pretentious tripe.

Near the beginning of the film, it becomes obvious that Stephanie Patrick (played by Lively) already checks three of the cliché boxes about female assassins in movies. Is she without a family? Check. Her immediate family (her parents and her younger sister and brother) have died in a plane crash three years before the story takes place.

Is she emotionally damaged with a drug problem? Check. She’s so traumatized over the loss of her family that she’s become a down-and-out drug addict. Is she a prostitute too? Check. She goes by the alias “Lisa” when she’s working as a hooker. Before the tragedy, Stephanie was an American who was living in England as a university student. Clearly, her student visa has now expired, just like this movie’s weak concept.

Somehow, a freelance journalist named Keith Proctor (played by Raza Jeffrey) tracks down Stephanie and poses as a client so that he can get into her apartment. He tells her that he doesn’t want sex but wants to tell her that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident. It was really caused by a bomb that was planted by a terrorist named Muhammad Reza (played Tawfeek Barhom), in yet another movie stereotype that portrays an Arab as a crazy terrorist.

Okay, stop right there. At some point, you have to wonder how stupid the filmmakers think viewers are, because there’s no way that a plane that has been exploded by a bomb, killing everyone (hundreds of people) on board, could be mistaken as an “accident” by government agencies investigating such a major tragedy. But in the world of “The Rhythm Section,” so many things are silly and illogical that there’s no point in trying to make sense of this sloppy mess of a story.

And in the world of “The Rhythm Section,” if you’re a journalist investigating this plane that was “secretly” bombed, you need to track down a drug-addicted prostitute whose immediately family died on the plane and convince her that she needs to help you find this mysterious terrorist, even though she’s so strung out that she can barely function. No joke. That’s what happens in the movie.

Proctor, who already knows Stephanie’s real name, then proceeds to invite her to his place and leave all of his keys with her, even though he knows she’s a drug addict who’ll be tempted to steal from him to get money for drugs. When she points that out to him, he tells her, “I can always change the locks.” It’s no surprise that things don’t turn out very well for Proctor. Before he’s out of the picture, Stephanie confesses to him that she feels guilty because she was supposed to be on the plane with her family, but she changed her mind at the last minute.

Stephanie goes away to a remote countryside in Scotland. And almost immediately, she’s tracked down by another man, who ambushes her. Despite being a messed-up junkie with no background in espionage, law enforcement, the military or intelligence gathering, Stephanie seems to have some kind of invisible radar where people think that she’s the perfect candidate to hunt down an international terrorist. The new man who wants Stephanie to be his terrorist hunter just goes by the name “B” (played by Jude Law), and his mission is to train Stephanie to become an assassin to find not only Reza, but also the head of the international terrorist group that sent Reza to plant the plane’s bomb. The group’s name is U-17, which sounds more like a submarine than a terrorist faction.

And off Stephanie and B go in the remote countryside, where he whips her into shape, as she huffs and puffs on morning jogs she doesn’t want to take. So, no drug rehab then? After some target practice, B’s way of training Stephanie to use a gun is to demand that she shoot him while he’s wearing a bulletproof vest. Viewers will also have to sit through several scenes where B seems to take pleasure in randomly starting physical fights with Stephanie, as a way to prepare her for her new life as a terrorist hunter.

Oh and by the way, as B tells her, Stephanie has to pose as a German spy named Petra, because Petra has disappeared and he needs someone to assume Petra’s identity. And why exactly does Stephanie agree to all of this and go away with this mystery person, who won’t even tell her his full name and says he used to be in MI6 but shows no proof? Are she and this movie’s screenplay that dumb? Yes.

It’s not long before another guy comes into the mix: Marc Serra (played by Sterling K. Brown), an American philanthropist who says he used to be in the CIA and he’s willing to help “Petra” track down the brains behind U-17, so he becomes a trusted advisor. He immediately notices that “Petra” doesn’t have a German accent, and she doesn’t really answer his question when he asks her why she doesn’t have a German accent. (Lively’s accent in the movie is kind of distracting, because it sounds like American trying too hard to sound British. She should’ve just stuck with her real American accent.) Stephanie and Marc are sexually attracted to each other, so of course that means ethics will be compromised and judgment will be clouded.

And even when she assumes a new identity, the movie isn’t done with showing Stephanie/”Petra” being a hooker yet. While disguising herself as a red-haired, high-priced escort, she visits a rich, arrogant businessman named Michael “Leo” Giler (played by Max Casella) in his New York City luxury apartment. B has told her to kill the guy. However, things might or might not go as planned. But that’s not before Stephanie strips down into dominatrix-type lingerie where she slinks and slithers around on Giler to lure him into her seduction trap.

As car chases, gun fights and explosions in several cities around the world act as filler to this very flimsy story, viewers might ask, “Where exactly is this movie going?” For long stretches of the movie, the answer to that question is “nowhere.” And then there’s the laughably bad ending that leaves you wondering how the actors could’ve kept a straight face while filming it. “The Rhythm Section” is an ironic title for this movie, which ultimately hits all the wrong beats and is off-balance from the start.

Paramount Pictures released “The Rhythm Section” in U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.

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