For his directorial debut, Denzel Washington chose to tell a very human, very sentimental story which is sure to be embraced by audiences and probably win him a bunch of awards as well. Yet it hasn’t even opened yet and it’s already meeting backlash. For instance, Ed Gonzalez (one of the better online critics) calls it THE worst film of the year. I’ve heard his reasons and he’s not all wrong, but it’s obvious his contrarian stance is exaggerated for effect. “Antwone Fisher” might not be for everybody, but it does too many things right to completely dismiss it.
Gonzalez and others find it self-serving that Antwone Fisher wrote a film about himself, but I don’t see how this is any different than how every screenplay is informed by the writer’s experiences to some extent. Fisher just decided not to hide behind fiction and to put his name right there on top of his life story. And what a difficult life it’s been… Antwone’s father was murdered before he was born, and as his mother was in jail he spent his formative years between the orphanage, reform school and a foster home where he went through unspeakable abuse for years. Fisher is all grown up when the film opens, having found some solace by serving in the US Navy but still getting into trouble. After one too many fights, he’s sent to a naval psychiatrist (Denzel Washington) who’ll help him come to terms with the roots of his anger…
…and the doctor becomes “more like a father than anyone Fisher has ever known” and Fish hooks up with a woman (Joy Bryant) “from whom he learns how to love” and he “finds the courage to stop fighting and start healing”. Okay, I can see why some would roll their eyes at all this. Reduced to press kit excerpts, the film does sound like a syrupy smudge of clichés and easy resolutions. Denzel the filmmaker is no visionary: his directorial choices are conventional and obvious, and when you add glossy images, a score that underlines every story beat and characters that are either patient and understanding saints or cartoonishly evil abusers and you do get an undeniably Hollywoodish film that’s Oscar bait from stern to prow. Then again, as an actor (and a great one at that), Washington knows how to get great performances not only from himself but from his cast. Most impressively, he’s taken a guy who worked in the Sony gift shop, gave him the lead role and inspired Derek Luke give a powerful, deeply affecting performance.
And while his screenplay is a bit clumsy and simplistic at times, Antwone Fisher did live this story and he’s able to involve us emotionally in a way few movies do. Again, one could complain that the film is a shamelessly manipulative tearjerker but come on, it’s effective! It wants to move you and it does, where’s the harm in that? “Damn you Denzel for making me feel for Fisher, crying with him and finding it so uplifting that he can find a way out!” I started getting watery eyes half an hour into it and then the waterworks hardly ever stopped. Lots of critics resent movies that go for the heart instead of the brain, movies that touch millions instead of being praised by a small self-proclaimed elite. I’m not of that school of thought. “Antwone Fisher” might not advance cinema as an art form, but it moved the hell out of me.