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Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Left feeling cold after overdosing on Antwone

Antwone Fisher

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Denzel Washington
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Meet Antwone Fisher, a 23-year-old sailor in the U.S. Navy. A charming guy in many ways, but he's got a temper that lands him on a psychiatrist's couch. What is at the bottom of his rages? What was his upbringing like?

News photo
Denzel Washington and Derek Luke in "Antwone Fisher"

"Antwone Fisher" demands that within the opening five minutes of the movie you're sufficiently intrigued by the protagonist to be burningly curious about his life. If you're not, "Antwone Fisher" won't slow down for you.

"Antwone Fisher" is a story that you can imagine a young, still unknown Denzel Washington might have starred in. And I guess this must be one of the reasons why he chose the material for his directorial debut. For years, directing has been on Washington's agenda. For years, he was too busy. And after sifting through what must have have been about 2 million possible screenplays, he chose "Antwone Fisher," a memoir penned by Antwone Fisher, focusing on the life and times of Antwone Fisher. Problem is, after two solid hours in Antwone's company, I still couldn't grasp what was so special about his story, enough to inspire a Hollywood icon like Washington to take up the megaphone.

Admittedly, Antwone had a traumatic upbringing that you imagine would transfer well to the screen. His father was murdered by a jealous girlfriend. His mother was serving time when she was pregnant with Antwone and upon his birth, gave him up to the authorities and disappeared. As a baby, Antwone lived in an orphanage, and in his childhood he had to endure life in a nightmarish foster home with two other little boys, all cowering before the ogresslike mother, Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson). After years of cruel treatment and sexual molestation by an older foster cousin (Yolanda Ross), Antwone enlists in the navy.

He becomes a good seaman, but is plagued by ungovernable bursts of fury. He is sent to the office of naval shrink Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington) where he is at first hostile and uncooperative. But gradually his defenses break down in the face of Davenport's obvious sincerity and Antwone reveals his past. Davenport tells Antwone that the only way he can attain peace of mind is to seek closure on the issue of his family -- he advises the younger man to go and seek out his blood relations.

The screenplay was written 10 years ago when Antwone, after leaving the navy, was working as a security guard for Sony Pictures. He gave it to the executives and they liked it, but it took this long to sign on a director and find an actor for the title role. Derek Luke, who worked at Sony's souvenir shop and was Antwone's friend, got the role.

All this is intriguing information and instructive to anyone wishing to sell screenplays. It makes you happy for Antwone and all the people connected to making the movie. Still, there's a discomfort lurking behind this satisfaction -- discomfort at the determination of Antwone Fisher to tell his very personal story, in his own name, for the world to see.

True, it's an uplifting tale of enormous courage and identity-seeking, but on another level it's a testament to amazing self-absorption. Antwone Fisher is obsessed with Antwone Fisher, and it shows.

In one scene, Antwone is invited to Davenport's house for Thanksgiving, and by way of thanking the doctor Antwone reads aloud his poem called "Who Will Cry For the Little Boy:" so self-pitying and so mawkishly self-centered it cancels out any supposed offering of gratitude.

Even when Antwone finally finds a girlfriend in the perky Cheryl (Joy Bryant), he doesn't do very much with her before whisking her off to Cleveland (his birthplace) so she can help him tear through the streets and go through the phone book to locate his long-lost family. Cheryl is a sweet, patient angel, but you can't help but wonder how she feels about Antwone's hang-ups defining their relationship.

The same can be said of just about everyone else in the picture -- they seem to exist only in relation to Antwone's turmoils. Davenport, for example, experiences some marital problems and the story almost goes there once or twice, but then these issues fade out to make way for more Antwone. It also doesn't help that Washington lacks ambition with the camera -- perhaps if the lens had done quirkier things rather than stay transfixed by Antwone, it may have been easier to warm to both him and his story.

The whole experience recalls a date with someone you're not too enthused about. It's an OK time, he's nice and everything. But that's just not enough reason to fall in love with the guy.

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