Oh, yes, Antwone Fisher is manipulative as hell. It pulls out all the stops — and occasionally cheats shamelessly — in a full-frontal assault on the tear ducts.
Every time the film looks like it’s going to take an unexpected turn, it pulls back and heads straight for the predictable. It’s often too tentative for its own good — to the degree that you sense that Denzel Washington, despite his Oscar win for his over-the-top bad guy in Training Day, isn’t risking the loss of his status as that “oh-so-nice young man” that’s made him a favorite with the least adventurous of moviegoers. Antwone Fisher isn’t, however, in the ultra-treacly mould of Washington’s starring vehicle, John Q, and it’s an impressive directorial debut for the actor.
It’s laughable to think that the by-the-numbers manipulation of John Q would ever have included this film’s unflinching depiction of child abuse and the more delicately handled aspects of child molestation, or the film’s one unexpected outburst of cold-blooded violence. Despite Antwone Fisher’s undeniable shortcomings in the scripting department, Washington and his cameraman, Phillipe Rousselot (Planet of the Apes, The Tailor of Panama), rarely make a false move. Antwone Fisher opens on an impressive dream sequence that holds the key to the entire movie — both in its theme and the way the film looks.
The first thing we see is young Antwone (Cory Hodges) in a brightly lit field as he goes toward a huge white barn. The doors of the barn open and the boy finds himself invited to a huge banquet presided over by an array of people in Civil War-era garb. Led to the head of the table, Antwone is served a huge stack of pancakes and the dream abruptly ends, plunging us into the present day for Antwone (now played by Derek Luke) as a sailor aboard an aircraft carrier. What is initially most impressive about the film’s opening is its almost unbelievable saturation of color — something that seems more attributable to Washington than his cinematographer, since Rousselot’s other films don’t have this look. Washington imposes it to great effect across the entire film — giving Antwone Fisher a deeply rich physical beauty that is, in itself, worth the price of admission.
The dream sequence, however, is not just for show — its import becomes clear as the film progresses. Everything we see in Antwone’s dream is explained and elaborated on — the banquet, the pancakes, the slavery-era clothing — as the story unfolds. It’s audacious filmmaking, and, for the most part, Washington lives up to its promise. Despite the film’s tear-jerker/feel-good underpinnings, Antwone Fisher generally works because of that most-undervalued aspect of creativity: a sincere belief in the material. In whatever manner the film impacts you — or doesn’t — it’s hard to deny that the filmmaker truly believes in the work he’s creating, and that he genuinely cares about the characters (something I never felt while watching Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, to which Antwone Fisher has inexplicably been likened).
Washington’s movie might have been a very simplistic story of a young man’s search for the parents who abandoned him at birth (where have we seen that kind of Lifetime Network eyewash before?); instead, it doesn’t even get to that as a plot point until quite late in the film. Rather, Antwone Fisher is deceptively complex — allowing its plot to unfold in almost a mystery-story fashion as more and more of Antwone’s past comes to the surface through his relationship with Navy shrink Jerome Davenport (Washington). Even more complex is the way in which Antwone’s need to find his birth parents arises, since it’s the indirect result of Antwone getting too close to Davenport and his family. Thankfully, Washington’s Davenport is no saintly psychiatrist with all the answers, but a flawed character with problems of his own. In fact, it’s suggested that his idea for Antwone to go on a quest for his real family is motivated less out of Davenport’s concern for his patient and more out of a sense of threat to the status quo of his own life.
The film does topple into overblown sentimentality (though it remains undeniably effective) and parlays a smattering of plot-point cheating (how do these people know about the pancakes?), but Antwone Fisher’s overriding honesty even survives the film’s obligatory, sick-making crane-shot-with-swelling-music final image.
As strong as Washington’s talents are as a filmmaker in the technical sense, his greatest strength lies in his ability to get uniformly fine performances out of his cast, especially newcomer Derek Luke in the title role. But as bright as Washington’s future as a director may be, Luke’s future as an actor may be even brighter. It’s definitely the sort of performance out of which stars are made.