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Naval Maneuvers: Denzel Washington (right) instructs Derek Luke in 'Antwone Fisher.'

Good Sailor Hunting

'Antwone Fisher' is a movie fit for the Eisenhower age

By Richard von Busack

OF THE MOVIE Antwone Fisher, production designer Nelson Coates put it best: "Obviously, this story is a love letter to the Navy." It tells of a sailor's free therapy from a shrink who acts like a surrogate father--never setting boundaries until it's almost too late. (The word "transference" is not in this shrink's vocabulary.) The Navy, as depicted here, involves lots of San Diego sights, plenty of shopping time, lounging around on decks reading books and Mexican vacations.

The real-life Fisher, today a bestselling author, stresses the realism of this film, signing his name on it at the end. Yet this supposedly authentic story doesn't mention that Fisher had left the Navy by the time he went back to Cleveland for the cathartic journey that wraps up this criminally sentimental feature. Actually, Fisher sold this script while working in a less photogenic job as a security guard at the Sony studios. If the Navy's much vaunted preparation for later life leads directly to a job as a security guard, there's some missing information in this love letter.

Denzel Washington's debut film as director is, basically, Good Sailor Hunting. A brilliant young sailor, Antwone Fisher (gently underplayed by the newcomer Derek Luke) has unresolved issues about his abusive upbringing. He starts fights when he's needled about his sexuality. On the point of being thrown out of the military, he's sent to the fatherly psychiatrist, Jerome Davenport (Washington), who helps reparent this young man--and learns to reach out of his own shell in the process.

As this is a father-son movie, the female characters are limited. Davenport's wife (Salli Richardson), is upset about her husband's withholding but too well-bred to confront him directly. The dining-room scenes between Davenport and his wife aren't that far from Far From Heaven, but they're meant to be touching instead of spine-chilling. The good girl, Cheryl (Joy Bryant), is never suspicious of or frightened by Fisher.

I've loved Washington for his shrewdness and power. Also, it's been years since there's been a movie about a military psychiatrist, so I'd hoped he would explore that mysterious profession (was Catch 22 the last movie even indirectly about someone in that field?). But this outstanding actor's common sense goes missing in the scene where his Jerome weeps over Fisher's poems. "Who will cry for the little boy, lost and all alone? Who will cry for the little boy? The boy inside the man." It's a lousy feeling: if you cringe at these lines, you're as mean as the mean foster mother who used to beat Antwone with wet rags. But what someone writes for therapy and what someone writes for publication are two separate matters. Antwone's right to find love and healing doesn't mean that everything he publishes has to be embraced in tears. And just so, this movie doesn't have to be wept over because of its subject matter--or the bland, sweetened way it treats Fisher's story.

Antwone Fisher (PG-13; 113 min.), directed by Denzel Washington, written by Antwone Fisher, photographed by Philippe Rousselot and starring Derek Luke and Washington, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell and selected theaters valleywide.

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From the December 19-25, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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