Denzel Washington didn't break down Hollywood barriers by being a maverick. He reached the pinnacle of the acting profession by proving he could be as appealing and versatile as anyone in the mainstream.
It's not surprising, then, that "Antwone Fisher," Washington's directorial debut, is less a showy artistic statement than an attempt to smack the ball right up the middle. As you watch this drama about a troubled young man who confronts his dark past with the help of a therapist/father figure, you can't miss echoes of films such as "Ordinary People," "Good Will Hunting," "Finding Forrester" and even, alas, "K-Pax."
Yet to dismiss "Antwone Fisher" as derivative would be to deny its considerable emotional power as well as its ability to use these familiar elements to tell a story about African-American families - and families in general - that feels new after all. It earns the tears that it jerks.
The real-life Antwone Fisher wrote the movie based on his life, and this no doubt the first weekend ever to feature two new releases in which the screenwriter is the lead character. (The other is the Charlie Kaufman-penned "Adaptation.") Impressive newcomer Derek Luke plays Antwone, whom we meet as a Naval scrub whose hair-trigger temper and mean right hook belie a sweet lack of worldliness.
After inflicting his rage on fellow sailors a few too many times, Antwone is sent to a naval psychiatrist, Jerome Davenport, played by Washington with his usual smooth authority. At first Antwone is a combination of defiance and denial, declaring, "There's nothing wrong with me," even after admitting, "I never had parents."
When Antwone refuses to talk, the therapist wears him down with patience, silently working at his desk for session after session until Antwone decides to open up. There's no denying the been-there/done-that feel to many of these scenes. We've seen this dynamic between Matt Damon and Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting," and before that between Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch in "Ordinary People." The subplot about Jerome's foundering marriage, and his patient's effect on it, also is time-tested, most recently in "K-Pax."
Yet Fisher the writer injects enough shading and specificity into his story that Fisher the character, who's been somewhat fictionalized for the movie, becomes his own man. As seen in flashbacks, Fisher winds up in foster care in Cleveland when his father is killed and mother incarcerated.
We've seen nasty foster moms before but none quite like Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson), a black woman who has internalized the racial hostility she no doubt faced and turns it on Antwone as he grows up. She calls him the "N" word and inflicts corporal punishment with a wet towel, and all while you sense that she probably believes she loves him.
With certain incidents hindering his development, Antwone, a good-looking young man, turns out to be gun-shy in the area of romance. His courtship of Cheryl, a sunny Navy-store clerk played winningly by Joy Bryant, avoids cliche through its genuine sweetness.
Luke comes across as genuine as well. He's an actor with watchful eyes and an open face that invite you into his soul. Luke gives Antwone's rage a force, but most of all you feel his humanity as someone who learns that his past is something to be conquered, not feared.
Washington, typically, is rock-solid in front of the camera, conveying ample warmth and sympathy. Behind the camera, he's a relatively straightforward storyteller, strategic in his use of lyrical touches.
The movie's opening, for instance, is a striking dream sequence in which a boy in a suit makes his way through a dried-out field to discover a sumptuous banquet attended by dozens of people, young and old, smiling in his direction. These images resonate throughout the movie as we see what Antwone lacks and seeks.
His personal journey is suitably engaging - again in kind of a familiar way - over the first three-quarters or so, but the final act is where the story kicks up to another level of emotional intensity. Looking backward turns out to be just a means of reaching forward, and how Antwone achieves this goal is likely to prompt the most stoic of viewers to reach for the tissues, even as Washington documents the developments with tasteful restraint.
"Antwone Fisher" most of all celebrates family in a way that's deeply felt by the director and screenwriter/subject and no doubt will be shared by viewers of any ethnicity. The movie is in touch not only with the deadened nerve endings that accompany isolation but also the rejuvenating powers of a warm embrace. It leaves the audience feeling like that boy at the banquet, enjoying a feast of the heart.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Denzel Washington; written by Antwone Fisher; photographed by Philippe Rousselot; edited by Conrad Buff; production designed by Nelson Coates; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Todd Black, Randa Haines, Washington. A Fox Searchlight release; opens Friday, Dec. 20. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, language, mature thematic material involving abuse).
Antwone Fisher - Derek Luke
Cheryl - Joy Bryant
Jerome Davenport - Denzel Washington
Berta Davenport - Salli Richardson
James - Earl Billings Slim - Kevin Connolly
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.