SPOILER ALERT!Denzel Washington's debut feature characteristically received praise from critics stateside: "great, heartbreaking, joyous moments" - Roger Ebert, "Fisher delves deep, delivers a pearl" - The Washington Post, but was far less appreciated in the UK: "a mind-numbing, soul-deadeningly dull experience - BBCi, "soothingly predictable and peppered with clichés" - The Guardian. The truth lies somewhere in between, as the black actor turned director turns in a creditable effort, but one which could have been better.
Based on a true story, and with a screenplay written by the eponymous hero from his own book, Antwone Fisher is at heart a study of psychological disturbance, laced with reasonable amounts of Hollywood sugar and optimism about the human spirit. It's a peculiarly American medicine, swallowed less willingly in some markets than others, which probably explains why criticism of the film often confused Washington's directorial talents (which are generally good) with the various workings of his film's plot, which can be argued about.
Antwone Fisher's story starts in the navy, where after a particularly vivid nightmare he slugs a fellow shipmate, and is hauled up before the Captain. Sent to navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington), he begins to work out issues of anger that, it turns out, stem from an abused childhood to which is added a guilt complex over a dead friend. At the same time Fisher (played by newcomer Derek Luke), struggles to establish a first adult romantic relationship with the inviting Cheryl (Joy Bryant). In a parallel plot thread, Washington's character, the ever-reasonable Dr Davenport, is having marital problems. In due course we discover that he has things to learn about communicating too and Fisher is a catalyst for his own change.
Fisher's screenplay reached the cameras by a somewhat circuitous route: after his stint in the navy and with little writing experience, he was hired by a Sony executive to write his own story - a process which apparently underwent over 40 drafts before it was acceptable. Most of the weaknesses of the film can be traced to the uncertainties he brings to his new craft, although Washington's direction papers reasonably well over many cracks. The most unconvincing elements are those subplots that revolve around the main character. These include the psychiatrist's ironic domestic problems, as well as Fisher's tentative love life. One is tempted to see these narrative distractions as rather manipulative bolt-on elements, leavening the appeal of a central, harrowing, personal history. The Fisher - Cheryl romance for instance, while in context necessarily clumsy, is also ultimately gauche. And once consummated, it is left to languish without further comment, as if further exploration of this side to Fisher's maturing was unnecessary.
More unforgivable is the fudge around the central issues of child abuse and neglect. Washington and Fisher seem happy to couch the ugly events of Fisher's past in cutaways and suggestive dialogue. Perhaps inevitable given the demands of a family audience, such reticence diminishes the central character's moral force, reducing his rage to hearsay. For a different presentation of a damaged psyche brought about by childhood trauma, interesting comparisons can be made with Cronenberg's Spider, also 2002. Although entirely fictional, it remains far more convincing in showing a damaged personality. Perhaps sensing this central weakness, Fisher's script introduces another element into the young African-American's tortured life as a foster child. During flashbacks he has to deal with 'slave-nation' justifications from Mrs Tate (Novella Nelson), suggesting a link between the hurt done to the individual and that presumably done to the whole black race - a reasoning which is frankly unconvincing and none too interesting. Significantly, such issues are given short shrift by the psychiatrist himself, and soon disappear from view.
On the plus side is the central performance by Derek Luke as the hero, a perfectly judged acting job, that neatly balances inner rage and confusion - "I don't know what to do" - with lack of self-pity. Washington's role is also well done. Given the difficulty of the actor-director role, he is to be applauded for carrying off both so effectively and without fuss, either in front or behind the camera. Notable is the opening of the movie, an interesting dream sequence, vivid and surreal, which makes slightly regret that Washington had not chosen a different project with which to start his directing career.
The best scenes of all occur at the end when Fisher confronts his newfound family. After the relative slowness of the opening sections, such a catharsis is welcome if predictable. Fisher's extended summation of his life and justification of his existence before his silent mother is a fine dramatic moment, and one entirely lacking in sentimentality. As the monologue ends, and he leaves, she says more in one tear than pages of dialogue could ever manage. One feels that Washington was wise not tinker with what was presumably a verbatim event, and his film could almost have ended on such a high point. The following scenes, as Fisher rejoins the bosom of his extended family, a room packed with jovial aunts and uncles, are slightly more artificial (and one wonders why Washington didn't have the real Fisher in there somewhere as the ghost at the party) but still serve as adequate, if conventional closure. Washington's fans will enjoy this film and it is well done enough fare; but Fisher needed to work harder to really hook this viewer's interest.
The well-presented DVD features an audio commentary (oddly enough, without Fisher himself), a trailer and an interview.