It’s a shame to see that as Denzel Washington experiences a new career high, the anger that defined his early performances has been vanquished from his work. The hunger that drove him to win his first Oscar as a hostile Civil War soldier in Glory has been replaced with overstuffed complacency, as if too many fat paydays and Julia Roberts movies have made him pliable to his standards. But don’t blame the alleged racist institutions that were faulted for the lack of Oscars awarded to African-Americans until last year. Denzel gave it up willingly and happily because that’s the only way to guarantee lasting crossover appeal. How else can one explain how he sold his self-respect to win another Oscar as the boogeyman cop in Training Day who enthusiastically claimed he was the king of the apes? That performance was full of bluster but it wasn’t ambitious; Washington had nothing to prove at that point, except possibly that after his anger resurfaced in two of his best performances in He Got Game and The Hurricane, he could mutate it into a bugaboo cultural stereotype ready for mass consumption.
Antwone Fisher, Washington’s directorial debut, isn’t an infuriating film until you comprehend how it works to pacify the tea-and-crumpets fanbase he now exclusively caters to. Emotionally uplifting and inspiring in the most obnoxiously genial ways imaginable, the film is the kind of nondescript portrait of determination and success that will be lapped up by viewers ready to offer their pity instead of trying to comprehend how individual perseverance is related to race and class. In recounting Fisher’s life as a Navy cadet who used his moral code to trump anger-management issues after suffering a childhood full of cruelty and maltreatment, Washington invites only the most bottom-feeding responses of sympathy and distress to this true story, exploiting its trite feel-good dilemmas and turning Antwone’s individuality into Hollywood sap.
The real monster behind Antwone Fisher, however, is Fisher himself, who greedily encourages Washington and Hollywood to rape his integrity in the name of Ben Franklin, not to mention Oscar. This year has witnessed an invasion of screenwriters who insist on selling themselves as insipidly as possible instead of attempting something original. Current It-scribe Charlie Kaufman at least had the good sense to have some fun with his image when plugging it into Adaptation. Fisher, like Moonlight Mile writer-director Brad Silberling, submits his life story as narcissistic melodrama, making it even less interesting than it would be otherwise. If the axiom they live by is “Write what you know,” then it is sad to be presented so convincingly with the shallowness of their wisdom.
It’s not just that their stories are too anonymous to warrant full-blown movie treatment. (Abuse or the death of a loved one does not automatically make for compelling drama. Imagine if everyone who ever fell in love decided to write a book about it.) It’s that they offer no contrary argument to the notion that they have led bogusly idealized existences. The eyes they cast upon themselves are clearly not objective or perceptive enough to glean any cogent observations from their experiences. After watching Adaptation mock screenwriting conventions (and try oh-so-hard to defy them), it’s ironic to realize that Fisher would probably be a hero to Brian Cox’s Robert McKee—he corrupts his life into a perfectly delineated three-act structure.
At the start of the film, Antwone (newcomer Derek Luke) takes his pent-up rage out on a fellow cadet and is ordered to report to Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington) for evaluation. You can easily visualize a dog-eared copy of Good Will Hunting‘s screenplay sitting next to Fisher’s typewriter as the headstrong Antwone and the savvy Davenport butt heads; during their first few sessions the former sits defiantly silent while the latter tauntingly catches up on paperwork. But it is not long before Antwone spills his life story. An orphan with an absentee mother and a dead father, he suffered cruel childhood beatings and other various abuses at the hand of his foster mother Ms. Tate (Novella Nelson, giving a performance of such extremity that it borders on Wayans Brothers parody), who addressed Antwone and his two foster brothers as “Nigger” instead of by their birth names.
Antwone and Davenport only have three sessions together before the cadet is sent back to his regular duties. But the film insists that Davenport—saddled with the most predictable character conventions possible (he gets to be the psychiatrist who easily gives aid to others but can’t help himself or his failing marriage)—will happily continue to see Antwone on the side, eventually inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner. Miraculously, Antwone begins to feel better about himself after spilling the beans to Davenport, yet the film refuses to let viewers off easy. The goal here is to make the audience feel as sorry for Antwone as humanly possible: he gets into a fight while on leave and conveniently recalls his sexual abuse at the hands of one of Ms. Tate’s friends. Just as Davenport declares that Antwone doesn’t need therapy anymore, Antwone drops another bombshell: his only childhood buddy suffered a violent fate while he watched, helpless to save him. In fact, every time the film veers close to acknowledging its own pointlessness—that Antwone’s hardships, while lamentable, aren’t the kind of issues that normally produce compelling film characters—a new Bad Memory pops into his head, and the film must spend the next 20 minutes dealing with it. And that only comes full circle to make Antwone Fisher even more specious. If the film maintains that the misfortunes Antwone suffered are really, really, really bad, how come it’s so damn easy for him to get over these horrors and move on with his life?
Culminating with Antwone’s journey to find his real family, the film goes from bad to worse as Fisher’s real-life self-absorption becomes the film’s central theme. When Antwone finds his birth mother, he barely bothers to ask her about herself before launching into a catalog of what makes him a good person. “I’ve never smoked a cigarette!” he proclaims while puffing up his chest. He eventually returns to the Navy base to surprise Davenport with the loss of his virginity and celebrate like a pair of horny frat boys. Then the good doctor, in the film’s penultimate moment of hokum, decides that Antwone has indelibly made him a better person and saved his marriage, and salutes him. How self-important, how egotistical, how vain can one man be? Not only does Fisher write a book and then a screenplay about himself, but he culminates the motion picture of his life story with an older and smarter man (Denzel Washington himself, not just the character!) practically begging to lick his boots clean.