THE OPENING MOMENTS OF ANTWONE Fisher made my stomach sink in dread. A young, dark-skinned black boy stands in a sprawling green field, dressed in a dark suit, staring solemnly ahead at a massive barn. His hand is taken by a smiling adult who leads him through the field and into the barn, where a great many black folk are waiting, dressed in clothing that ranges from plantation chic to contemporary casual. Mountains of soul food are piled atop a long wooden table. This is where I thought, "Oh, shit. I've been sucked into some Steven Spielberg/Maya Angelou/Oprah Winfrey miasma of hallowed Negro ancestors, artery-clogging food and fetishized fellowship." But then a gun fired, blood sprayed across a wall, and the movie really began. The bucolic scene turns out to be a dream of longing for Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke), a U.S. Navy sailor with a hair-trigger temper and emotional wounds that bleed messily into his everyday life. More important, following that crack of gunfire, the film offers an impressive melding of quietly radical images and ideas with, yes, an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing holiday tearjerker. It's also a deeply assured directing debut from actor Denzel Washington.
Sullen, aloof and quick to throw punches, Fisher after one too many on-duty brawls is forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Davenport (Washington), a midcareer military man whose own home life is tumultuous beneath the strained civility of his relationship with his wife, Berta (Salli Richardson). The unfolding of this patient-doctor relationship follows a familiar course: Resentment and stony silence from the patient slowly thaws into a life-altering relationship with the wry, patient doctor as the two forge a bond beyond blood. As the long-repressed pain and vulnerability beneath Fisher's anger slowly come to the surface, flashbacks flesh out his childhood of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It almost goes without saying that the physician, sparked by the example of his patient, heals himself.
What makes Antwone Fisher so much more than its conventional blueprint would suggest is Washington's fidelity to the details within the outline, which is based on a true story. The real-life Fisher, now a screenwriter and novelist, wrote the script, and there's no sugarcoating or flinching as author and director examine the Angry Negro at the film's center, struggling to decipher the hows and whys of his life. Religious hypocrisy, soul-debilitating abuse at the hands of female caretakers, and the staggering indifference of an overburdened foster-care program all had a strong hand in shaping Fisher. Indeed, what gives the leisurely paced film its bite is its detailed indictment of the subtler, domestic forms of black-on-black crime. The God-fearing foster mother who takes in Fisher and two other boys pits the fair-skinned boy with "good hair" against his nappy-headed, darker foster siblings. (And credit first-time director Washington for being among the few to employ a cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, who actually knows how to light dark skin.) She never calls the boys by their names, instead varying vocal inflections when she calls "Nigger!" in order to differentiate among the three. And in one of the film's sharpest insights (delivered in what is unfortunately one of Antwone Fisher's clunkier bits of dialogue), Dr. Davenport identifies the violent beatings the boys frequently endured as a legacy of slavery that black folk have incorporated as a cultural norm.
But the film is far from being a joyless recitation of cause and effect; it's unapologetically life-affirming, determinedly uplifting. In Fisher's fledgling romance with a female sailor, there is both levity and tenderness. Exchanges between the doctor and his patient are spiked with dry humor as their relationship evolves. And a Thanksgiving dinner scene is all but stolen by the criminally underrated actress/comedian Jenifer Lewis, who manages to wring laughter out of the throwaway line "How you doin'?" Even some of the harshness of Fisher's childhood is played for bitter laughs, countering the film's occasional drift into sentimentality. Antwone Fisher is hardwired into its title character's emotional life, and the viewer rides through his disappointments and heartache as well as his triumphs.
It's a journey handled with exceptional skill by newcomer Luke, who had only a handful of television appearances under his belt before landing this star-making role. Even in expressing his character's volatility, the actor never drifts into caricature, and Fisher's slow transformation into an emotionally stable adult reads absolutely true. Washington's performance is, as we've come to expect, flawless, while Salli Richardson, in what is more a concept than a character, graces Berta with an affecting woundedness. But the most thrilling performance in the film belongs to Viola Davis, so good in the recent releases Solaris and Far From Heaven. As a woman who reels when presented with the consequences, and unexpected bounty, of a lifetime of bad choices, her face goes absolutely still, then fans a wide breadth of emotion as she sits in heartbreaking silence. It's only a few minutes of screen time, but it's one of the best performances of the year.
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JUST ABOUT THE ONLY GOOD THING YOU CAN say about Spike Lee's pointless, didactic The 25th Hour is that it's filled with strong performances, albeit of stock characters. There's Barry Pepper as the droll renegade Wall Street hustler who gets most of the film's good lines ("You know what a man should never ask in a Victoria's Secret shop? 'Does this come in children's sizes?'"). Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a part he could pull off in his sleep, portrays a schlubby high school literature teacher trying to force himself to recoil from his lust for a female student (a snottily precocious Anna Paquin, in the film's one truly awful performance), while the physically stunning Rosario Dawson handles her gig as "the girlfriend" by doing exactly what she's asked to, which is to look unbelievably fuckable in every frame. They're all characters we've seen before, and though well acted, they have nothing new to say as they rotate around Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), who has 24 hours before he has to turn himself in to the authorities to serve a seven-year sentence for dealing drugs. The movie follows him as he fills those hours, the hook being that he has one last lamebrained idea to save himself from the horrors of prison. (The movie, in the end, is about nothing more than fear of sodomy. Pun intended.)
Norton, who in the past has been able to swell himself up into the outlines of a muscle-bound neo-Nazi, or shrink himself to the dimensions of a self-help junkie, is utterly defeated here by a character with no character. The movie is told largely in flashback (how Monty got his dog, how he met his girlfriend, how he met his downfall), but we never really get inside Monty's head, and we're never given a reason to want to. There's no compelling story here, as the movie listlessly flits from one loosely connected set piece to another; instead, Lee and screenwriter David Benioff, who adapted the script from his novel, fill the movie with a lot of gallingly ham-fisted tributes to 9/11. In one scene, two characters talk endlessly in front of a window overlooking the excavation of the World Trade Center's twin towers. At the end of this interminable back and forth, the camera zooms ominously into the wound as Terence Blanchard's score becomes more and more histrionic. The horror you feel is not the one Lee intends; the artless and off-putting moment provides a perfect example of why creative folk should put time between a life-shattering event and commenting on it. Spewing one's guts may be cathartic, but it's not automatically art. Elsewhere, the director shamelessly rips himself off, having Monty go off on a rant ("Fuck the Korean merchants, fuck the Russian mobsters, fuck the Dominicans, who make the Puerto Ricans look good . . .") that is a weak paraphrasing of a similar bit from Do the Right Thing. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros) gives the film a grittily poetic look that flatters both quiet, brownstone-lined neighborhoods and blue-tinged, hip-hop-scored nightclubs. But Prieto's visual flair can't mask the tedium of sitting through the film or the fact that, in making The 25th Hour, Spike Lee brought all his trademark hard sell but none of his passion or purpose.
ANTWONE FISHER | Directed by DENZEL WASHINGTON Written by ANTWONE FISHER | Produced by TODD BLACK, RANDA HAINES and WASHINGTON | Released by Fox Searchlight | At AMC Avco, Grove Stadium and Magic Johnson Theaters
THE 25TH HOUR | Directed by SPIKE LEE | Written by DAVID BENIOFF, based on his novel | Produced by TOBEY MAGUIRE, JULIA CHASMAN, JON KILIK and LEE | Released by Touchstone Pictures | At Pacific ArcLight and AMC Century 14