Fishing for Compliments

Antwone Fisher would surely make a great role model, says Antwone Fisher.

Antwone Fisher
Derek Luke, as the title character, has the look of a star in the making.
Derek Luke, as the title character, has the look of a star in the making.
Cleveland's latest foray into Hollywood is a tricky little movie to review, as it's going to divide audiences fairly drastically. Conservatives -- especially black ones -- 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. Parents who lament the lack of movies without gratuitous violence and sex will find in the film nothing objectionable and proclaim it an inspiration to us all.

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 -- simply put, a young navy man gets into fights, goes into therapy, figures out what his problem is, and fixes it -- 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, the Cleveland native who was "discovered" as a potential screenwriter while working security on the Sony lot. Even Howard Stern and Eminem showed more humility in creating their respective onscreen portrayals than Fisher does.

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, and a majority of viewers will likely not know or care who the real Antwone Fisher is. 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's a man who 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, who will soon be seen in Biker Boyz alongside that other great black American actor, Laurence Fishburne. 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. Oh, wait: He sometimes doesn't communicate very well with his wife. That's kind of a flaw, I guess, but not a very interesting one.

Washington's better in this movie as a director, showing a great command of film as a visual medium -- especially in the opening dream sequence. The visual flair noticeably decreases, however, any time he puts himself onscreen. Not that a filmgoer needs much else than a great actor onscreen, but it would certainly be interesting to see Washington direct a film in which he's barred from acting and has to look through the viewfinder at all times -- the potential is there for his helming work to be even better. As is, he's certainly beaten Laurence Fishburne's Once in the Life.

If you've seen the trailer for Antwone Fisher -- and who hasn't, repeatedly? -- you may yet be wondering, "What's the movie about?" The answer is: "Not much." Those trailers don't show you any plot because what's here barely qualifies as such. 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 patented Denzel Washington "slow burn" 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; no one can. Soon, Antwone's opening up, crying, letting it all hang out, 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 the hands of Denzel Washington, it manages to work magic on some who might not tolerate such shenanigans from, say, Chris Columbus. In addition to his eye for pictures, Washington can pick talent: Derek Luke has the potential for greatness, and Joy Bryant (MTV's Carmen) is equally 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 good month or so.

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