A Self-Made Hero
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
After two Oscars and two decades in the business, Denzel Washingtonmakes his directorial debut with Antwone Fisher.
Even as early as in 1984's A Soldier's Story, Washington has been a serious actor; it's as though he's saddled with representing the positive side of the black American experience on screen.
A commanding actor with a striking screen presence, Washington sometimes can kill the fun when he takes on lesser material, such as in Virtuosity or The Bone Collector. But he also can rise above -- and save -- otherwise bland and sentimental material, like in The Hurricane, and, sadly, this new movie.
It's no surprise that as a director Washington demands and receives excellent performances, from himself and from newcomer Derek Luke, who plays the title role.
It's also no surprise that Antwone Fisher's look, feel and pace are no more interesting than a standard made-for-TV product. Nobility takes precedence over art.
Perhaps part of the problem is because the film is based on a true story. Often, directors who make these types of movies resist leaving leaving their personal imprint on someone else's story. The result often is a movie with a singular, self-important tone.
Antwone Fisher has that tone -- despite the fact that the real Fisher even wrote the screenplay based on his own experience finding his long-lost family.
Still, it's difficult not to be suspicious of an irony-free film called Antwone Fisher written by Antwone Fisher, especially when the brilliant Adaptation opens in theaters the same week. Fisher had been working just a couple of months as a security guard at Sony Pictures. Trying to get the time off to spend Thanksgiving with his new family, he told his life story to his bosses, who in turn decided that the yarn would make a great movie.
In the film, Antwone (Luke) is a disaffected youth trying to make a go of it in the U.S. Navy. But his pent-up anger continually gets the best of him, and he's punished and sent to see the base shrink Jerome Davenport (Washington).
Washington makes the most of the scenes in the psychiatrist's office, using his forceful presence to outwit and undermine the lad, building a brilliant repartee similar to the one he had with Ethan Hawke in last year's Training Day.
The scenes take on extra resonance when we look at them two ways: as shrink and patient on the one hand, director and actor on the other. It's manipulation at its finest.
Washington asks us to believe that Jerome would take Antwone under his wing as a personal project. We never see any of his other patients, so I suppose he has a lot of time on his hands to do it. Of course, Jerome also has his own problems at home; he and his wife haven't been able to have kids and are drifting emotionally apart.
Despite his angry outbursts, Fisher has a huge heart. He's polite to his superiors, shy toward girls and even likes to curl up with a good book while his Navy pals go off in search of booze and women.
Could it be that Antwone's extraordinary humanity spills over into Jerome's life and fixes his problems, too?
It all comes down to the orphaned Antwone tracking down his real family. According to Jerome, if Antwone can find his relatives, his problems will vanish.
Washington sets the climax up nicely with a few beautifully rendered scenes that show Antwone meeting his foster mother and, later, his real mother.
But then he blows the sentiment up in our faces by escalating it. He places it in a huge family reunion with about 150 people crowded into one room -- complete with a glorious feast that was supposed to have been prepared in 20 minutes.
The whole thing drowns in Mychael Danna's icky score.
Yes, Antwone Fisher is a four-hankie weepie, and no, it doesn't provide much that we haven't seen before. But the few truthful, powerfully acted scenes manage to make you forget and forgive the silly, mushy, overcooked ones.
Overall, Antwone Fisher is hard to resist.