Most viewers walking into "Antwone Fisher" will, first and foremost,
be curious to see if Denzel Washington--making his directorial debut--is
as solid a filmmaker as he is an actor. While the jury may still be
out on this question until he makes a follow-up picture, he certainly
avoids embarrassing himself. Washington has crafted a low-key, intimate
drama with enough strengths within its characters and their relationships
to make it a well-spent two hours. Ultimately, the overly schmaltzy
and ironic ending brings down its lasting impression a notch or two,
but "Antwone Fisher" still stands as a minor success.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that it is written
by Antwone Fisher, "inspired" by his own life. Knowing this important
fact has its plusses and its minuses. On the one hand, if a true story
is going to be told it is ideal for it to be autobiographically written.
After all, who better to know about the subject matter than the person
who experienced it. At the same time, the truth can be twisted and
exaggerated per the writer's own wishes, to make him or herself look
better. In this case, there are unavoidable signs that Fisher softened
his real-life persona to make himself more sympathetic and likable,
but there is also a believability in its details and emotions that
only a first-hand account could ever achieve.
When a fight and a bad temper lands him another military restriction,
young Naval Officer Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) is required to see
psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington). At first detached
and refusing to open up to Jerome, Antwone eventually develops a friendly,
understanding rapport with him. It is soon discovered that Antwone,
who was born in prison and then handed over to social services, grew
up in a disturbingly abusive household and joined the Navy because
he had nowhere else to go. When a zestful, lovely lady enters his
life in the form of Cheryl (Joy Bryant), Antwone falls head over heels
for the first time in his life. In order to make their budding romance
work, Antwone must come to terms with a past that has haunted him
for ten years, or risk losing her.
The two key relationships in "Antwone Fisher"--the romance between
Antwone and Cheryl, and the sort of father-son friendship between
Antwone and Jerome--are what give the film its heart. Both relations
are unforced, natural, and gently touching. Screenwriter Antwone Fisher
may have embellished some of the facts, but he does a strong job of
developing characters in honest manners. Cheryl, for example, listens
and cares for Antwone, and does not blink twice when he admits to
her that he has been seeing a psychiatrist and has a lot of personal
troubles. And through Antwone, Jerome is able to begin to mend his
flailing marriage with Berta (Salli Richardson).
What director Washington is not always as smooth at are some occasionally
pretentious stylistic miscalculations, a sign of a first-time director.
In one scene, the lights dims around Antwone, obscuring Jerome in
the background. While it may be a schematic visual, it also jarringly
calls attention to itself and takes the viewer out of the material.
An upbeat dream that Antwone has in the beginning is recalled in real
life near the end, and the results aren't heartwarming as much as
they are overly cornball.
Ther performances are top-notch all around, lead by newcomers Derek
Luke and Joy Bryant (2002's "Showtime") in auspicious turns as Antwone
and Cheryl. Denzel Washington (2002's "John Q") has lended himself
the meatiest supporting part as psychiatrist Jerome Davenport, a man
who makes a living by fixing other people's problems when he has no
idea how to fix his own. Delivering fine support are Salli Richardson
(1996's "The Great White Hype"), as Berta; Novella Nelson (1998's
"A Perfect Murder"), as Antwone's nightmarish foster mother; and the
very busy Viola Davis (2002's "Solaris" and "Far From Heaven"), as
Antwone's estranged blood mother.
"Antwone Fisher" gets a little too maudlin by the finale (the family
welcoming scene dropped my rating down a full one-half of a star),
but it does surprise based on the discouraging opening twenty minutes.
Setting itself up as a tedious "Good Will Hunting" wannabe, the movie
evolves into a nicely-drawn, humanistic character study and a genuinely
romantic romance. "Antwone Fisher" is not the great film that early
word has touted it as, but it is a likable one.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman