Mark Reviews Movies

ANTWONE FISHER

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Denzel Washington

Cast: Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, Denzel Washington, Salli Richardson, Novella Nelson, Viola Davis

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and mature thematic material involving child abuse)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 12/19/02 (limited); 1/10/03 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Antwone Fisher crosses the line between genuinely touching and cloyingly manipulative many times over. Ultimately, the former wins out, but the inherent trappings of the latter keep the film from ever really taking off. Antwone Fisher is Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, and with its strong focus on character, we can tell an actor directed it. I can envision Washington moving on to direct solid and well-developed character dramas, and this story is a good place to start. With its feel-good, inspirational ambitions that will undoubtedly make it a popular movie, this should allow Washington the opportunity to move beyond such sentimental fare. The film is about Antwone Fisher, with a screenplay by Antwone Fisher, based on the memoirs of Antwone Fisher—needless to say who the focus is. Watching the movie, one cannot help but think of this whole thing as a self-congratulatory, egotistical act, but fortunately, the Antwone Fisher story is a genuinely affecting one.

Fisher (Derek Luke), a sailor in the Navy, dreams of a giant family welcoming him to a huge feast. The dream comes to a stop with the sound of a gunshot. He awakens to his life aboard a ship in port where he’s having problems controlling his temper, oftentimes leading to violent outbursts against fellow officers. His commanding officer is fed up with his behavior, fining him and forcing him to see a naval psychiatrist named Jerome Davenport (Washington). Fisher isn’t too keen with the idea and spends a series of session in silence. In the meantime, he begins to court a fellow officer named Cheryl (Joy Bryant). Eventually, he opens up to the doctor, divulging a horrible story of abuse at the hands of his foster family, in particular a Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson), certainly out to put the fear of God into him. Fisher continues his tale as his sessions with Davenport progress, continues to see Cheryl, and continues to have problems with anger. Davenport is convinced that comfort can only come when he finds his real family.

Fisher’s story recalls a few other more potent films (Good Will Hunting anyone?), and so it suffers from familiarity. The relationship between Fisher and Davenport is the key, and there’s an odd feeling that Fisher already knows what he needs to do and say to confront his problems. This is either the result of years of pop psychology in which everyone has the ability to psychoanalyze themselves or Fisher the screenwriter is giving Fisher the character a self-awareness that his older, wiser self currently possesses. It works in summing up what’s at the heart of Fisher’s problems and cutting to the chase. In this part of the movie, we also get the budding romance between Fisher and Cheryl, which is sweet. It also doesn’t resort to adding conflict for conflict’s sake. On the other hand, with Fisher’s intense fear of rejection and abandonment, we would expect there to be a few bumps in the road for the young couple. After all, Fisher breaks down when he learns the sessions with Davenport are over, but he has no fear of such a fate for him and Cheryl. There’s also tension between Davenport and his wife Berta (Salli Richardson), which at first we suspect is present to serve as a contrast to the blossoming romance, but it turns out completely different in the end, when Davenport gives an obligatory speech about Fisher’s impact on him.

Once we get past the analysis part of the film, the last act moves into more interesting territory. In this section, Fisher stands up to the people who beat him down and confronts the personal demons that have haunted him. It’s a truly moving series of events that leads to an overblown but deserved denouement. The climax finally puts mother and son in the same room. Note the way that Washington keeps the camera on Antwone’s mother after he leaves. In this one act, we see his potential strength as a director. He allows this character a chance to justify herself without words, and it adds an unexpected layer of regret and sympathy, thanks to Viola Davis’ short but incredibly effective performance. Newcomer Derek Luke also gives a strong performance. He hits home Fisher’s strength of character as well as the underpinning sadness and loneliness. He and Joy Bryant share fine chemistry for the romance, and Denzel Washington is as effective as ever.

When it boils down to it, Antwone Fisher is an uplifting story about overcoming personal demons, which, when done right as it is here, is always something from which to learn. Washington shows himself a director from whom to expect better things. There is something troubling me, though. Is Antwone Fisher’s story inspirational? Yes. Does he need to repeatedly tell us just how inspirational it is? No, but he does anyway. That’s what keeps the film from standing tall.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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