If you took “Good Will Hunting” and stirred in a healthy dose of “Soul Food,” you’d have something very close to Denzel Washington’s directorial debut. “Antwone Fisher” is based upon the autobiographical book by the title character, who also wrote the screenplay, but in the telling it emerges as an overly formulaic, if lovingly crafted, tale of a troubled US navy recruit (Derek Luke) who overcomes his inner demons by taking the advice of Jerome Davenport (Washington), a sensitive, low-key psychiatrist, to reconnect with his long-lost family. By the end of the narrative, Fisher has come to terms with his unhappy childhood, been swallowed up in the embrace of relatives he’d never known he had, found the love of a good woman (a navy clerk played by Joy Bryant), and effectively saved his military career; the process of working with him has also helped Davenport resolve some rough spots in his own childless marriage to Berta (Salli Richardson).
With its likable but haunted young protagonist, raucous shipmates (these guys could be from a road company of “South Pacific”), avuncular man of medicine, supportive girlfriend and boisterous family waiting in the wings, “Antwone Fisher” has all the makings of a crowd-pleasing tearjerker, and Washington takes advantage of them to create a film whose earnestness and dignity almost (though not quite) overcome the narrative’s sentimentality and lack of surprise. By mostly refusing to push the emotional buttons too hard, exercising generally firm control over the actors and adopting an unhurried, largely straightforward approach, he imparts a tone of decorum and directness to a project that might easily have degenerated into heavy-handed mawkishness; his work as director mirrors that of Gus Van Sant in “Hunting” and evinces the same sort of assurance that he brings to his performance as Davenport, and he manages to keep “Fisher” from becoming crudely cloying. He also secures solid, unfussy turns from Luke and Bryant, both of whom are engaging and, in the case of newcomer Luke, genuinely touching as well–even if, in the culminating confrontation with Antwone’s mother (Viola Davis), his inexperience is detrimental.
Nonetheless the predictability and patness of the piece, based on Fisher’s actual experience though it might be, eventually take their toll, and Washington’s occasional forays into a more grandiose style prove particularly damaging. A gauzy opening dream sequence, for example, foreshadows the cause of Antwone’s psychological trauma all too blatantly, and the frequent flashbacks to the youth’s past, particularly the Dickensian ones concerned with his stay in a brutal foster home headed by the awful Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson), aren’t always tonally right (some of them also seem rather abruptly inserted into the narrative). On the other hand, a few of the dialogue sequences, while admirably understated, come off a trifle flat. (Though it’s probably a natural result of the compression required to tell the story, moreover, Fisher’s opening up to Davenport after initial resistance seems rather facile.) Technically, however, the film is a class act down the line, with Philippe Rousselot’s photography nicely complementing Washington’s warm approach.
Anyone looking for an inspirational tale of a young man’s overcoming obstacles to succeed–something in the style of “Hunting” or “Finding Forrester”–should, therefore, find that “Antwone Fisher” fills the bill, and the film certainly shows that Denzel Washington can work as keenly behind the camera as he does in front of it. In the final analysis, though, it’s just too familiar a story, and its tone may strike you as self-consciously noble (just as Washington’s performances sometimes are). It will probably extract the tears the makers want you to shed, but afterwards you may feel a bit used by the manipulation, however expertly applied.