Fishing for Compliments
Here's a tricky little movie to review, as it's going to divide audiences fairly drastically. Conservatives, especially black ones like Larry Elder and Ken Hamblin, will likely laud Antwone Fisher as a heroic story of a triumphant black man who conquers all of his inner demons and outer obstacles (of which skin prejudice is not one; racism is dead in America, don'cha know?) to become a military man of great character. They won't be the only ones: Moral police like Bill Bennett will be happy with it, as will the particular strain of aging boomers who tear up any time they hear about black people facing hardships.
The cynic, naturally, will find much to mock in the film's deadly earnestness. Even more so than, say, Far from Heaven, Antwone Fisher contains not a trace of irony and is designed to make you cry and cheer by hook or by crook (in fairness, mostly by hook). One could also poke holes in the film's near-total lack of a plot or the fact that therapy seemingly cures people swiftly and permanently. Most notably, one could also point out that the heroic, self-determined young role model named Antwone Fisher is being positioned as such by none other than the real Antwone Fisher, who was "discovered" as a potential screenwriter while working security on the Sony lot.
The truth lies somewhere between cynicism and adulation. Sure, it's doubtful Fisher is as much of a saint as the movie portrays, but this isn't a documentary, after all. The deadly earnestness is a bit much, yes, but the acting couldn't be better. That the movie happens to be the directorial debut of Denzel Washington is no surprise. Training Day aside, he specializes in playing saintly role models without irony; he's also an undeniably great actor who keeps us watching regardless. He's not the lead here: Fisher is played by impressive newcomer Derek Luke. Washington can't not be in the movie, though, so he's the shrink-cum-father figure, Jerome Davenport. Who also happens to be a perfect role model.
If you've seen the trailer for Antwone Fisher, you may yet be wondering, "What's the movie about?" The answer is, "Not much." Antwone the sailor man has an anger-management problem almost on a par with Popeye's, and he's forced to go to counseling with kindly Dr. Davenport, who's also a superior officer, as he reminds us in a patented Denzel Washington "slow burn(er)" enunciation through clenched teeth. Antwone doesn't want therapy, so at first he says nothing. But you can't keep saying no to Denzel forever. Soon Antwone's opening up, crying, getting a grip, and getting his first girlfriend, all without leaving the extremely limited number of locations allotted by the film's budget. Antwone, it turns out, didn't have a family. So he goes out and finds one. No more anger for Antwone! The end.
In the hands of lesser mortals, this would add up to perhaps the worst movie of the year. In Washington's hands, it manages to work magic. In addition to his eye for pictures, Washington can pick talent: Luke has the potential for greatness, and Joy Bryant (MTV's Carmen) is also strong as the woman who wins his heart. Whether Antwone Fisher himself has any kind of screenwriting future, on the other hand, is open to question, though he'll likely have his hands full with speaking engagements and talk-radio appearances for a month or so.
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