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Antwone Fisher (PG-13)
Fox Searchlight
Official Site
Director: Denzel Washington
Producers: Todd Black, Randa Haines, Denzel Washington
Written by: Antwone Fisher
Cast: Denzel Washington, Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, Salli Richardson, Cory Hodges, Jascha Washington, De’Angelo Wilson, Novella Nelson

Rating: out of 5

I would call it a feel-good movie if only so much didn’t happen to Antwone that made me feel bad for him. Also I feel bad about him because—and this may be churlish—he does some Stupid Guy Shit (think “poor impulse control”) during the movie. He gets his act together, through counseling and a good woman, and we learn that his horrible childhood is the cause of his misbehavior. But if he hadn’t got his shit together, if his tendency to respond to the slightest emotional stress with physical aggression had led to, say, murder, folks would claim that “A terrible childhood is no excuse.” Well either it is or it isn’t, know what I’m saying? It can’t be the cause if you manage to overcome it and a bleeding-heart liberal excuse if you don’t.

About a decade ago, the real-life Antwone Fisher was a security guard on the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot. Somehow, he got his story to the attention of producer Todd Black, who mentored him through screenwriting courses and, with Denzel Washington, taught him Filmmaking 101. It’s a movie full of firsts. It’s Washington’s first outing as director and Fisher’s first screenplay. The film’s leads, Derek Luke and Joy Bryant, are starring in their first movie roles. And, to make it even more fairy-tale, Mr. Luke is also a former Sony employee, having worked at the Sony Pictures gift shop.

Navy shmoe Fisher (Luke) seems like an intelligent-enough guy, but he has a nasty rep, due to his propensity to punch out first and ask questions later. He’s indiscriminate, too, laying the smack down on peers and superior officers alike. He’s also shot in the ass with luck. Instead of the brig, he’s restricted to base and sentenced to see a shrink for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. Fisher goes in for his mandatory three sessions with a shitload of attitude, but Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington) lets him and his attitude cool their heels on the sofa until Fisher is ready to give therapy a try.

Once the kid buys in, he buys in big time. As Davenport, Washington does exude a warm, Father Knows Best thing, right down to the cardigan, in fact, but that still can’t explain the astonishing rapidity with which Fisher goes from sullen silence to spilling his guts. He sure gets the hang of therapy fast, not even pausing for a scene or two to establish his trust in Davenport. Was something left on the cutting room floor? Fisher-the-analysand gets in touch with his feelings so fast your head will spin, as flashbacks reveal an unlovely personal history of parental abandonment and foster care filled with cruelty, torture, and emotional and sexual abuse.

There’s not much suspense about our destination: We’re all able to watch this today because Mr. Fisher’s therapy was successful, for which I am deeply thankful. There is only a modest amount of suspense in learning about his deeply scarring upbringing, if one could call it that. (Interestingly, Fisher makes me think of Smike. I just saw Nicholas Nickleby, an affecting movie, but one that played for laughs (!) and had most of its Dickensian grimness surgically removed and, apparently, transplanted into this film.) The movie ends when Fisher finds his family.

As an actor, Washington reverts to type, with a variant of his patented good guys. His appropriately subdued performance is a letdown after seeing him tear it up in Training Day, but he’s more than mere eye candy, despite the Clark Gable moustache and his symmetrical good looks. Since this is the Antwone Fisher story, it’s nice that the director didn’t fear to have the marquee star step out for a goodly chunk of the last third of the movie. Newbies Luke and Bryant don’t exactly embarrass themselves, but they could learn an awful lot from current it-girl Viola Davis (Solaris, Far From Heaven), who creates a more credible character in her nearly wordless three minutes than they do in the whole movie.

Virgin director Washington chose his first project safely and well. This story of personal hardships overcome is practically unfuckable material. Washington puts us in the milieu with lots of cool Navy shots. Personally, I dig maneuvers like manning the rails and all the military business, but I can see how it was a bit heavy-handed. Which made it all the more surprising to discover Washington’s deft touch with light comedy. There’s a priceless Thanksgiving dinner scene, where years and maternities of family history and ongoing squabbles and annoyances can be heard in the symphony of comments, over-talking, and shushing around the table. On the other hand, there’s a side story involving Davenport and his wife, Berta (Richardson), that’s just a waste of everybody’s time. What’s it there for? Some sort of misguidedly symmetrical explanation of Davenport’s fatherly interest in Fisher? Bushwa, I say. Also, it’s depressing to see that the term faggot is so loaded that it’s still the insult to guys. On the plus side, this movie and the recent Drumline are encouraging signs that Hollywood can tell stories about black people who aren’t into thug life.

Antwone Fisher has overtones of the vastly overrated Good Will Hunting with a soupcon of Ordinary People, and it is probably the best answer for people who are asking for a “heart-warming” holiday movie. Do not conflate the heart-warming true story of Mr. Fisher’s life with a movie of excellence.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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