Washington's 'Antwone Fisher' sets the bar too low

by Peter Jenks | 1/13/03 6:00am

A small boy stands in the middle of a field, waiting. As he waits, someone takes him by the hand and leads him into a barn full of loving people and a long table full of delicious food. The boy is led to the head of the table, and a large plate of pancakes is set down in front of him. Suddenly, Antwone Fisher wakes from his dream and is back aboard the battleship he is stationed on.

So begins the new film from first-time director Denzel Washington. The protagonist is a troubled petty officer in the Navy, chin-deep in an identity crisis. Antwone (newcomer Derek Luke) starts a fight with a superior officer in the bathroom of his ship after the officer makes what Antwone perceives as a racial slur. His commanding officers disagree, and he is put on restriction and sent to three sessions with a naval psychiatrist to treat his emotional issues.

The psychiatrist is Dr. Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington), who finds An-twone completely unwilling to cooperate:

"[Is] running away how you handle your problems?"

"I don't have no problems."

Dr. Davenport deals with Anwone's reluctance by informing him that until he talks, the sessions won't count. He proceeds to do paperwork, leaving Antwone sitting in his office with nothing to do.

After a few weeks of silent one-hour sessions, he starts talking. The story that eventually unfolds is troubling: Antwone was born in a prison with his father already dead, taken from his mother at two months and placed in an orphanage. Abused for years by his foster family, he was eventually kicked out and shortly after joined the Navy. Antwone is dealing with the emotional repercussions of abuse and abandonment, issues whose severity the film highlights with frequent flashbacks to his childhood.

Meanwhile, a number of subplots are going on. Antwone has found love with Cheryl (Joy Bryant), who works in the base's bookstore, but his relationship with her is complicated by his socially repressed background.

Simultaneously, Dr. Davenport is having his own problems at home with his wife. Although the story doesn't reveal the underlying cause of the trouble until late in the movie, it is apparent that the doctor is not being the loving, caring individual he would like all his patients to be.

The film progresses predictably as Antwone is ultimately forced to address his issues. He heads home, Cheryl in tow, to find the past that refuses to let him go.

The movie is that simple, and the only surprise it contains is that it has no surprises. There is no quality of the movie that stands out as exceptional in any way. Least impressive of all is Washington's directing job, which is nearly devoid of creativity and painfully formulaic.

The acting is much the same. Luke, Washington and Bryant all are satisfactory, but none remarkable. The roles lack any original complexity, and the performances do little more than fulfill the necessary stereotypes. The only character with any aspect of dynamism is the protagonist, and both Cheryl and Dr. Davenport end up seeming remarkably dry.

The film's screenplay was written by the real-life Antwone Fisher; the film was "inspired by" a true story. As such, the viewer faces a quandary: we're glad for Antwone's success, but it's hard not to find the film a little self-congratulatory.

In spite of all its flaws, the film does work on a certain level: it has a kind of naive effectiveness. The explanation for this is simply the style of the movie.

Fisher wrote the film to be moving, and Washington directed it with the same end in mind. With that as the filmmakers' goal, they have succeeded, thanks in part to Washing-ton's experience. When Antwone stands on the porch of his old foster mother's home and shouts to her, "I'm still strong! I'm still standing!" the viewer can't help but feel a slight tug at the heartstrings. And the moments keep coming: an emotional monologue at the first meeting with his natural mother, a speech from the doctor to the patient about who really has been doing the healing, and so on.

The film is not an ambitious one. With the bar set low, "Antwone Fisher" hurdles it with ease, but in doing so fails to be impressive. To do that, the film would have had to do more than simply clear the low demands of its script, but rather exceed their rather conservative requirements. It does not, and is content to settle.

This is not an entirely bad thing, and the picture is far from a failure. It will not go down in the annals of film history, but will remain in the vast twilight of films that either aspired too high, tried to do too much or -- like "Antwone Fisher" -- were content not to aspire at all.