Similar to Paul Giamatti’s character in “The Holdovers” and Nicolas Cage’s in “Dream Scenario,” Monk is a professor who just doesn’t connect with his students. After one confrontational class too many, he’s put on leave, and he tries to refocus his unsuccessful efforts on finally selling his latest book about Greek mythology. A trip to a literary convention in Boston leads him to begrudgingly return to his family home.
Monk has been so distant from his family for so long that he’s genuinely shaken to learn his deceased father had affairs — an open secret everyone else in the Ellison household was well aware of. Both his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), and his brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), have gone through messy divorces, with the latter now trying to make up for lost time as a newly out gay man. More troublingly, their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), is showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and even beloved housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) can no longer care for all her needs.
So things are pretty rough in Monk’s life — but they’re not rough in the ways American pop culture usually portrays Black people’s lives as being. As aggravated as he is with his personal issues, it’s the popularity of a novel titled “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” that really gets Monk’s gears grinding. Author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) has been promoting her bestseller as a work of authentic representation, but to Monk’s ears, it sounds like stereotypical drivel meant to appease guilty white liberals. But there’s money in such appeasement, and paying Agnes’ assisted living bills sure is expensive …
Cord Jefferson’s screenplay expertly juggles multiple narrative threads. The author story and the family story both feed into each other, and so too does Monk’s budding romance with his neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), who’s a fan of Monk’s writing but increasingly put off by his suspicious secrecy. All of the central characters feel real and fully formed. Jeffrey Wright, a brilliant actor usually cast in supporting roles, shines in this all-too-rare opportunity as a leading man. He’s particularly hilarious when code-switching into the role of “Mr. Leigh.” Brown and Rae also stand out in an all-around exceptional ensemble, taking roles that could have been played more jokey and treating them with serious nuance while still nailing the comedy.