Friday, December 27, 2002

Antwone Fisher / *** (2002)

The year has indeed been kind to actors trying their hand at motion picture directing. Consider first the undertaking made by Bill Paxton earlier this year with the magnificent "Frailty," and then think of the latest of these efforts, Denzel Washington's "Antwone Fisher." Neither alike in either subject matter or payoff, they're products of men who have never once stepped outside of the view of a camera lens, and yet with one stroke of curiosity seem to have learned more about how to use one than most people do in an entire lifetime. Does that mean they're natural born filmmakers? Perhaps. But as is the case with all things new and unfamiliar, sometimes there is still room for improvement.

To assume that Washington could duplicate the depth and brilliance of his acting in his first outing as a director is a rather lofty expectation, but to assume the exact opposite is even more unfair. With "Antwone Fisher," the recent Academy Award winner has taken a real-life memoir and turned it not into a sappy melodrama, but an honest, respectable and engaging character study in which the dramatics are just as important to the plot as plot itself. Furthermore, he gives the audience the rare opportunity to greet a bright new screen talent in the form of Derek Luke, who plays the title role on a convincing scale that forces us to wonder why he is only now being discovered for the screen. No, this isn't a breakthrough achievement for Washington as a man behind all the big decisions, but who would dare expect that of any first-time director to begin with?

"Antwone Fisher," a closing card informs us, is based on a true story, although certain elements, namely characters, have either been stretched or "fabricated" to help with a plausible cinematic transfer. At the root of the narrative is Antwone himself, a naval officer in training who has brief but periodic bursts of anger that usually result in a fellow comrade being beaten to a bloody pulp. Anger management is recommended, but when his superiors catch him in the act, they decide the most suitable punishment is a psychiatric evaluation. As a result, Antwone finds himself sitting across the desk of navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington), who informs his hesitant patient early on that unless he begins talking, he'll be wasting an entire hour every week staring at the walls in the office.

Fisher, naturally, doesn't say a word for quite some time. But when he realizes that his bottled-up anger could be undermining a building friendship with the fetching Cheryl Smolley (Joy Bryant), he finally opts to reveal his past to the intrigued Davenport. The source of Antwone's anger, not surprisingly, began when the boy was transplanted into a foster home just after his mother gave birth to him in jail. But what the officer reveals beyond that is a series of brutally painful, violent and disturbing memories that even Davenport himself has difficulty absorbing. The conflict, then, isn't how to analyze Antwone's condition, but how to improve it—has he ever tried to cope with the harsh reality of his early life? Does he have the strength to face his demons? And what will the future bring him should he seek out his own real family? In many ways, the movie's first scenes, which are fantasies from his fragmented mind, foreshadow the true answer.

The movie's biggest plus, perhaps even more than its genuine tone or its credible acting, is the script, which was written by Antwone Fisher himself and seems to utilize all the necessary traits of a solid two-hour drama. It wisely intersects the developing narrative with several flashback sequences, which not only reveal the source of pain, but also peal layers back on the title character from both ends of the timeline. Luke, who was supposedly discovered on accident, carries this heavy burden remarkably well, sometimes conveying weakness and strength in the same scenes and shielding it all with slender emotional responses. A closing sequence in which Antwone meets his biological mother for the first time is such an example; in it, he opens up to her about his fragmented life, sheds tears, admits his anger, but then pulls back before the situation devours him. If anyone were to expect anything beyond brilliant in the making of this movie, they should look first towards its lead star rather than its director.

Washington is beyond a marvelous screen actor—he is one of the most believable, conscious and observant thespians of our time. As a filmmaker, he recreates much of that spark but is not actually electric in the process; parts of his work feel curiously unfinished, while others are stretched so thin that they almost tear holes in the fabric (the love story between Antwone and Cheryl being a primary example). But "Antwone Fisher" is a much better effort than it might have been in the wrong hands; it's real, passionate, subtle, and most importantly, genuine about the themes it strives to convey. Washington has done all that is necessary of him for now; someday, he might even progress towards being a visionary rather than just a good movie director.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Derek Luke: Antwone Fisher
Joy Bryant: Cheryl Smolley
Denzel Washington: Jerome Davenport
Salli Richardson: Berta
Earl Billings: James
Kevin Connolly: Slim
Viola Davis: Eva

Produced by Todd Black, Antwone Fisher, Randa Haines, Nancy Paloian-Breznikar, Chris Smith and Denzel Washington; Directed by Denzel Washington; Screenwritten by Antwone Fisher

Drama (US); Rated PG-13 for violence, language and mature thematic material involving child abuse; Running Time - 113 Minutes

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