Originally a Tony Award winning play from the late August Wilson, Fences receives the big screen treatment courtesy of director and star, Denzel Washington. The film debuted in early November to the highest of praises from countless members of the Screen Actors Guild, which instantly solidified Fences as a legitimate Oscar contender. Despite its inability to entertain quite as effectively as other awards season hopefuls, you should still expect to hear the film's name called on Oscar night.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy (Washington) is a former baseball star who finds himself unsatisfied as a 53 year-old garbage man. But as Troy's resentment trickles down to his star-athlete son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), they two battle over Cory's desire to play college football. Meanwhile, the family's adoring matriarch, Rose (Viola Davis), works tirelessly to keep the peace within their household.
It's impossible to ignore the playhouse aura that suffocates Denzel Washington's adapted work. Fences looks and feels like a stageplay in every aspect, so much so that it hampers the film's ability to stand out as more than just a superbly acted accomplishment. Both of its leading stars will most likely end up as finalists in tightly contended Oscar races. Washington's performance dances wistfully along a wide spectrum of emotions. There are powerful moments where Washington reminds the audience of his singular talents that have earned him a decades-long career in the industry. Then, on the other hand, the lead star delivers overtly embellished scenes where he sadly begs to be noticed as his character transitions from a hopeless romantic, to a stern father and a villainous foe. Washington's onscreen counterpart, Viola Davis, provides a more balanced and nuanced performance filled with heart, soulfulness and subtle intricacies. Her work in Fences is an absolute marvel and the stars are aligning for Davis to finally win an Oscar, after being unforgivably robbed by Meryl Streep (for The Iron Lady???) a few years back. Supporting star, Mykelti Williamson - best known as Benjamin Buford Blue, aka Bubba, in Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump - has also earned some early rumblings as an Oscar hopeful, further solidifying Fences as a clear showcase for its many actors and actresses.
Despite the film's unquestionably promising performances, Fences struggles to resonate in many other areas. A popular saying among filmmakers is "show, don't tell". Unfortunately, verbose dialogue and a long-winded screenplay form a recipe for boredom. Even through the stories twists and turns Fences fails to adequately entertain. Many have lauded Denzel Washington's direction, yet he never overcomes limited settings and the hindrances of a stageplay backdrop. Fences tells an expansive story spanning many characters but, even after piling up nearly a 140-minute running time, these various subplots feel under-developed. It's because of all these shortcomings that Fences doesn't quite stack up as the Best Picture contender that insiders are claiming.
Denzel Washington offers a brilliantly acted adaptation that's geared towards an award season audience. Yet, if you're searching for more than just an actor's showcase drowned in dialogue and lacking amusement, then you'll have to look further than Fences.