Go Navy

Denzel's directorial debut is smooth sailing.

ANTWONE FISHER (which opens Christmas Day at Pacific Place and other theaters), is yet another true-life story of redemption (like Catch Me, at left). Denzel Washington plays Jerome Davenport, a square-jawed Navy psychiatrist (having pocketed his Oscar for playing a badass in Training Day, he's back to being a Role Model). Davenport gets assigned a hard case: hot-tempered Antwone Fisher, who mouths off to superior officers and even punches out his Navy pals when they tease him about being a virgin. What those callous shipmates don't know is that Fisher (played by Derek Luke, barely seen before on minor TV shows) was abandoned by his druggie mom, emotionally abused by his foster mother, and sexually assaulted by his foster mother's daughter. This makes him shy with his stunning girlfriend (Yalie/Victoria's Secret model Joy Bryant).

The movie is every bit as schmaltzy as it sounds, and the Navy hasn't had such a recruiting tool since the Village People's In the Navy video. (The service, it seems, is a great place to male bond, meet babes, and maximize your human potential —after the Navy shrink cures your childhood ills.) Denzel's directing style is narratively obvious and cinematically stolid. As Saul Bellow once said of an irritating banjo player, he "tickles every note three times."

Therefore, I am astonished to report that the film is quite satisfying. Though he's not much of a counselor, Denzel has the courage of his excessively conventional convictions, and you'll root for these dear hearts and gentle people all the way to the predestined therapeutic breakthrough. The performances radiate goodness (or badness), and there's a wonderful rush of family feeling when Davenport invites Antwone to Thanksgiving and when Antwone finds his lost relatives. With such winning performances all around, it's heartbreaking that Denzel couldn't make his own breakthrough and mess with the formula, toss in a shadow or two, let that Thanksgiving dinner run on a bit and complicate itself, de-emphasize the moral, take some risk. But of all the overtly heartwarming movies this year, his is the least cynical and the most emotionally authentic.


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