That stench wafting out of the multiplex to assault your sinuses is the stink of Oscar, dripping like fetid manure off of the prints of Antwone Fisher
, Denzel Washington's puppeteering -- sorry, directorial -- debut masquerading as sappy, manipulative drivel engineered to win statues and jerk every last tear out of every last duct in the audience.
That the movie manages not to suck ass is some sort of miracle, and I place the blame squarely on the puppeteer himself and his ability to coax some mighty fine performances out of his cast. A thuddingly mediocre remake of the already-crappy Gus Van Sant double-feature Good Will Hunting
and Finding Forrester
(its similarity to the latter might have resulted in the script's title being changed from its original incarnation Finding Fish
) by most standards but a masterpiece by Beautiful Mind
standards, Antwone Fisher
is one of those 4-hankie crowd-pleasers that will make cringe any face whose bones contain the slightest ounce of cynicism.
Making sure to provide absolutely no reason to question the behavior of its self-congratulating protagonist, the film resorts to heavy-handed flashbacks to earn our sympathies in the hoariest of fashions. How could we not feel sorry when tiny children are tied to rusty pipes in dank basements and whipped with wet towels? How can we not root for the hero to find his family when he's suffering from so much inner torture -- none of it his fault, mind you, since it's the result of years of trama and abuse, and Robin Williams already taught us to repeat the "it's not your fault" mantra -- and wants to just settle down with a nice Navy girl (whose job throughout the film involves nothing but selling books and looking lovingly at Antwone, her sole reason for existing on this Earth)? Trotting out one cornball scene after another (don't even get me started on the "Who will cry for the little boy...?" poetry scene that had me stifling severely inappropriate laughter) until we are numbed into submission, the film assures us that love, understanding, hope, and forgiveness are the keys to happiness, and everything will work out in the end. Ah, what a world.
With this truckload of crap to dump into the cinematic landfill, it's simply shocking that I enjoyed the movie as much as I did -- which, admittedly, is still so-so. Credit is due first and foremost to Washington's confident directorial skill, which not only makes the mature choice of settling on conventional camerawork so as not to insecurely overstylize material that doesn't deserve it, but also gets newcomer Derek Luke to deliver a very fine performance. Luke is simply charming in every scene, especially his humorous and coy ones, where his disarming smile and innocent gait make him immediately likable no matter how much his character is crammed into the tree trunk full of sap. Washington also gets more emotion from Viola Davis in three minutes of screen time with no dialogue than Soderbergh got from her throughout the entirety of Solaris
(although her Independent Spirit nomination for Best Supporting Actress in this one is a little outrageous).
I also was impressed by the amount of humor Washington uses to leaven the heavy material, giving every little character a realistic quirk and cutting judiciously on the funny lines to keep the timing solid. Fisher's script is structured with all the grace of Elaine Benes dancing, but Washington manages to smooth out the wrinkles, all the while delivering yet another one of his own masterful supporting performances -- which no doubt will get ignored in all the talk of his behind-the-camera work, yet which in my opinion is of equal quality to his Oscar-winning Training Day
performance. The other noteworthy achievement is Washington and Fisher's admirable decision to keep the element of racism alive only enough to keep it realistic (the light-skinned foster child gets the best treatment, etc.), but not enough to make it an Issue. The fact that critics are bitching about the film's avoidance of the racial issue is absurd. How limiting it is to demand that every movie made by and starring blacks has to spend its time dealing with racism. As Chris Rock said, "I spend maybe ten minutes max out of every day thinking about racism; the rest of it I'm just going about my business." So screw the white-guilty-PC critics who yearn for Washington's version of Do The Right Thing
-- this movie is about a kid with a bad upbringing who exorcises his psychological demons and seeks redemption. Put Kieran Culkin and Bill Pullman in it and let Brad Silberling direct, and it's the same flick. Overdone, hackneyed, and shallow as it is, at least it knows its boundaries and stays within them until the final gimme-the-goddamn-Oscar frame flickers through the projector.