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ANTWONE FISHER(director: Denzel Washington; screenwriter: Antwone Fisher; cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot; editor: Conrad Buff; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), Joy Bryant (Cheryl Smolley), Denzel Washington (Jerome Davenport), Salli Richardson (Berta), Viola Davis (Eva), Yolanda Ross (Nadine), Rainoldo Gooding (Grayson), De’Angelo Wilson (Jesse), Novella Nelson (Mrs. Tate), Malcolm David Kelley (Antwone at 11); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Todd Black/Randa Haines/Denzel Washington; 20th Century Fox; 2002)

“The film works well as a conventional tear-jerker drama told in a straightforward no-nonsense manner.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Antwone Fisher” is the directorial debut by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, who also plays the role of Navy psychiatrist Dr. Davenport. It’s based on the true story of the titular character, a seaman raised without his real parents who can’t overcome that abandoned feeling. As a result, Antwone suffers from anger-management problems. Fisher also wrote the screenplay, which is both good and bad news. It’s good because he knows his story best. But the screenplay suffers from no outsider looking over his shoulder to check for objectivity. The film works well as a conventional tear-jerker drama told in a straightforward no-nonsense manner. But it’s limited because there are no surprises or tension in the formulaic telling of this tale of woe, as the dramatics are all Psychology 101 theatrics and everything just fits into place as one would expect by the end. Yet, the craftsmanship of the production is solid and the acting is effective. Newcomer Derek Luke as Antwone Fisher gives an honest and an emotionally perceptive performance, as he carries the story’s torpedo load while Mr. Washington gives his usual bigger than life portrayal. But this time in a supporting role.

Antwone is a troublemaker seaman aboard a ship docked in San Diego, who remains withdrawn and is easily provoked. After he gets into a bathroom fight over really nothing with a white non-commissioned officer, he’s placed on restrictions and sent to see the shrink. At first, he refuses to acknowledge that he has a problem and clams completely up. Davenport tells him that they have three sessions together before he will pass on a recommendation to his commander of whether he is to be bounced from the service.

Gradually he learns to trust Davenport about his childhood traumas. This comes after sitting in the shrink’s office in silence for a few sessions. When he starts talking, he tells about his hard life in Cleveland and how he never knew his parents who abandoned him soon after he was born. His father was killed by one of his girlfriends two months after he was born and his young incarcerated mother gave birth to him in prison and sent him immediately to the orphanage. His most bitter experiences were as a foster child, where he resided along with two other boys and an older foster girl Nadine (Yolanda Ross) with his evangelist preacher foster father Mr. Tate and with his abusive wife Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson). Mrs. Tate tied him and beat him with wet towels when not verbally abusing him. He also suffered from sexual abuse from Nadine. Antwone was eventually kicked out of their household and returned to the orphanage, where he received no counseling support. Feeling completely abandoned and alone after leaving the orphanage when he was no longer a minor, he joined the Navy to try to make something out of his life.

Help also now comes to him by way of a wonderful Navy girl, Cheryl (Joy Bryant), who works in the Navy exchange whenever she’s not glowing with joy at seeing the bashful 25-year-old virgin seaman. She makes it easy for him to get the first date he ever had, and this encourages him to open up even more with both her and his shrink. It turns out that Antwone is bright, sensitive, reads a lot, writes poems, speaks two other languages, leads a drug free life and yearns for a family and love. Through the shrink’s help which goes beyond regular office visits (he becomes a father figure to Antwone), he learns to gain confidence in himself and handle his rages. The final step before he graduates into a success story, is to track down his real mother and his father’s family.

Denzel, in an undeveloped subplot, gets to solve his own personal emotional problem just by working on Antwone’s case. It seems he also has trouble communicating, but his problem is in communicating with his lovely wife (Richardson). There was not enough energy invested in this subplot to make it work and his wife was more or less a background character whose story seemed to be more in the way of plot filler than of actual importance to the story.

The power in the film is derived from Antwone’s uplifting universal story and Derek Luke’s sincere performance, where he does very well the things he’s asked to do. He’s not asked to do much more than get angry, be subdued, and at times flash a big smile.

What the film doesn’t tell you is that the real Antwone Fisher became a security guard at Sony Pictures Studios after his Navy tour of duty of 11 years and though he had little writing experience, he was hired by producer Todd Black to script his own story. The producer heard his story from his college roommate some 10 years ago. Ironically, Derek Luke was discovered for this role while working in a gift shop at Sony Studios.

My problem with this tale is that I’m given no room to question such a complete recovery from such a severe problem after only a few sessions with the shrink, a kind girlfriend at his side, a family dinner with his father’s folks, and a meeting with his real mother. Is that all it took? I’m not saying it’s not possible (evidently it happened), but I’m just wondering. I wouldn’t entirely dismiss this sentimental film because it’s bogged down by the nature of its simplistic Hollywood success story, but I won’t embrace it as a film deserving Oscar attention as is rumored. There was just not enough happening for the story to be more far reaching than as an inspiration for others to overcome their severe personal problems. Maybe, that’s enough for it to get a big box-office and to empower a large audience that connects with such a heartwarming story. If that’s the case, that might be enough of a reward.

REVIEWED ON 12/22/2002 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”