As a boy growing into a young adult, Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) suffered through an unimaginably turbulent transition period. He endured beatings, verbal abuse, sexual issues, ping-ponging from foster care to men's shelters and, most troubling of all, abandonment. Everything seemed out of control and uncertain in his life, so he takes the route that a strong, self-respecting man takes under these circumstances: he enlists in the military, in his case the Navy. There, his life has structure, ambition, and strength -- but he's still enraged about his past, which leads to repeated incidents where he brawls with his fellow seaman. The Navy's set to give him the boot, but he's given an opportunity to prove his openness to change by going to military psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Bryant (Denzel Washington). There, the pair delves to the root of Antwone's issues, working to get the boy to swallow down his abandonment issues and lighten the rage he carries for his estranged family.
Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington's first directorial gig penned by Fisher himself, acts exactly the way it sounds: like a sweet-natured, boundlessly hopeful biopic that focuses on a truly affecting story. It looks for influence in An Officer and a Gentlemen and Good Will Hunting, tapping into both to find a connection between authority and care to pave a way for Antwone's breakthroughs. Familiar masculine tones also gather around the main character, incorporating peer pressure and sexual frustration in ways that clouds judgment in familiar situations -- a scuff at a dance club, peer digs at his sexual experience, and a general inability to take criticism. Tumbling through fistfight after fistfight with Fisher taps deeply into Richard Gere's testosterone-infused energy as Zack Mayo, while his disconnection and masking of the past easily mirrors Will Hunting. Denzel Washington's therapist, in retrospect, brings together Louis Gossett Jr's Foley and Robin Williams' therapist Seam Maguire into one ever so familiar character.
Too familiar, actually. Though mirroring a real story, Antwone Fisher doesn't strike enough tones of genuineness to merit its theatrics. Once Hollywood starts to polish up the story, the earnest potency rubs off with it. Part of this false feeling about the film's nature comes from sugary, forced line delivery, transforming scenes that would carry enough emotionality without the drama -- for instance, a scene where Antwone reads one of his poems to Dr. Bryant -- into a barrage of tear-jerking hooks. It's a scenario where the attractively-captured Naval base photography and the sweep-you-up score neglect to aid the film, even tacking on a staged and over-nourished feel onto this heartbreaking story.
It does earn its stripes back by emphasizing acting chops over line poignancy, namely from the supporting cast. Derek Luke does a fine job as Antwone Fisher, giving substance to his quaking, troubled character. But the emotional scenes in the film wouldn't strike nearly the same chords without a counterbalance from Denzel Washington, Joy Bryant as his understanding girlfriend, and a strong turn from Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Dr. Bryant's wife. These characters help to anchor the floating Fisher, as they likely did to the man himself as he started his treatments. Their interactions help to keep the sticky, familiar rhythm going until the end, building up to the best performance in the film -- a capsule-sized, understated performance from Viola Davis that goes underappreciated due to its miniature length.
However, it would take a lot to completely mask the effectiveness of Antwone's story. There are many variations of the presupposed American dream, but the most prominent and desired one is the rags to riches motif. Fisher's path through life embodies that stitch by stitch, but in an intimate way; he makes close to nothing as a Naval officer, but the structure that the lost kid receives gradually molds him into a textbook story of hope. Without his true-to-life past, we wouldn't have the honesty of narrative behind this drama-based character picture. Living through his life in motion takes on a rhythm much like reflecting on a past with as much positive reinforcement as possible, working as an emotional cleanser that can scrub the harshness off of a deeply moving tale. His story can be seen through the fluff, which allows Antwone Fisher to stand as a saccharine character portrait of a profound human experience. It isn't without a garnish of cheese, but it packs enough heart and amiableness to compensate.
Video and Audio:
Fox's high-definition transfer for Antwone Fisher, packed in a 1080p AVC encode, flips flops in image strength. Typical close-ups can deliver quite a blast of detail in the 2.35:1 imaage, especially once the cinematography inches even closer during weepy scenes. Flesh tones and skin contrast generally stands quite strong as well, reflecting off of Derek Luke's complex facial features in a radiant light. When the camera pulls back, however, we're working with a slightly different animal. Contrast differences grow somewhat noisy, especially at the lower third of the screen several times, while black levels grow noisy and gray as they inch to darker shades. Grain gets rather heavy against facial textures in distances shots as well, distorting image strength. Still, color saturation and the scant amounts of scenic shots -- including one at a dimly-lit point in the film with Antwone and his girlfriend at a lighthouse -- look rather good, while a substantial level of dimensionality stays persistent throughout the picture.
Equally as sporadic is the DTS HD Master Audio track, one that can sound splendid one minute and overly hollow the next. Generally these critiques don't apply to the musical accompaniment and sound effect, both of which sound pretty sharp throughout the picture. Hopping into a Mexican club surround the viewer with ambiance from the second we step in, while elements such as thuds against a wooden-panel floor and punches against a wall ring true. However, verbal clarity is all over the place, suffering the most in the bathroom scenes. In each instance, the audio grows highly muffled and demanding of a volume increase to make out what is being said. Other scenes, however, don't suffer from these problems, coming through moderately clear. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish to accompany the sole English language track.
Commentary with Producer Todd Black and Director Denzel Washington:
Taking a sober tone, this commentary takes us through a relaxed Filmmaker 101 style stream of information. It focuses on the genesis of the picture, casting decisions, shooting location information, budget constraints, and test screening impressions. Enthusiasm is relatively muted throughout, but you can appreciate the passion that these two had in assembling the film -- especially once Denzel's openness with the material comes into the mix.
Meeting Antwone Fisher (14:12, SD MPEG-2):
Antwone Fisher the man comes into focus in this heartfelt featurette. It mixes interviews with Denzel Washington and cast, as well as a good chunk of interview time with soft-spoken Fisher himself. The importance of the captain that forced him into therapy falls into focus, connecting that simple Navy-based decision as a pivot point in his life.
Making of Antwone Fisher (22:16, SD):
Then the overly warm sentiments really kick into gear. This featurette, taking on a general rhythm of footage spliced in with interviews, dials in on the casting process for Luke as Fisher, Denzel's decision to direct, as well as its emotional outreach to all different kinds of people. It's not a bad featurette, featuring a few snippets of decent behind-the-scenes footage as well, but it's largely an extension of the sappy feelings oozing from the film.
Hollywood and the Navy (4:41, SD):
It's interesting how the most tangent-seeming pieces can be the most intriguing. Though short, this featurette covers a wealth of intriguing material, mostly focusing on how filming on a Navy base changed after 9/11. It also focuses on the Navy as a "subculture and a family" in the words of the interviewed PR officer for the Navy, Lt. Tanya Wallace.
Rounding out the special features is a high-definition Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, AVC).
Antwone Fisher's story is remarkable to behold, but the borderline derivative heart-tugging tones in its cinematic translation almost bolster its emotional nature over the top. A cluster of well-tempered dynamics created between Derek Luke and his supporting cast keep it from going into the stratosphere, namely between Denzel in a dual actor/director role and Joy Bryant as his love interest, but they're largely influenced by similar films of its type. It's a wholesome, hopeful picture, even when it's trying hard to dig into the heart and be the idyllic, weepy portrait of growth. Fox's Blu-ray carries a serviceable aural and visual presentation, while the supplements provide a small dose of after film intrigue. Antwone Fisher's a strong Rental, though the glaring warmth and tearjerker lines of dialogue will lose their luster on subsequent viewings.