Most viewers walking into "Antwone Fisher" will, first and foremost, be curious to see if Denzel Washingtonmaking his directorial debutis 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 Jeromeare 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 dim 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.
The 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.
©2002 by Dustin Putman