Throughout much of Antwone Fisher, Antwone Fisher (Luke) maintains a state of violent denial. "I don't have no problems," he insists, refusing to speak with the Navy psychiatrist who questions him after Fisher is busted and fined for erupting in rage against a fellow sailor. "I got nothing to say," says the angry young black seaman.
Yet Fisher does have something to say and says it as a screenwriter through this film, the story of his own progress from sullen misanthropy to reconciliation. When Dr. Jerome Davenport begins his therapy sessions with a conventional query about Fisher's childhood, the hostile patient replies: "I never had parents. I'm from under a rock." The rock that is blocking Fisher from adjusting to the world is a history of abuse and abandonment. With the skills of a horse whisperer, Davenport slowly cajoles his coltish charge into sharing his memories, allowing the movie to proceed, largely through flashbacks. Eventually, with the help of a good woman, Fisher returns to Cleveland and dispels the ghosts that have been haunting him.
Antwone Fisher is as earnest and emphatic as its novice director, Denzel Washington, usually is in his acting assignments. Playing Davenport, Washington is a physician who also needs healing, and by the end of the film, through taking on Fisher as surrogate son, he has learned to be both a better doctor and a better husband. Antwone Fisher is a success story that succeeds in celebrating good will and lucidity. It suggests that all it takes to become a loving, alert adult is acknowledgment of childhood traumas. Though Davenport hands Fisher books on slavery and racism, there is no evidence that they were read by either the characters or the screenwriter. The film is a winsome Freudian fairy tale that denies the tyranny of history, sociology, and human perversity.
— Steven G. Kellman
"Road trip through pointlessness"
Dir. Alexander Payne; writ. Louis Begley (novel), Payne; feat. Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb (R)
At the dreariest retirement party at the dreariest insurance company in the dreariest town in America's heartland, Jack Nicholson is playing an utterly unremarkable man - an actuary, for heaven's sake - at the end of his career, and very close (we soon find out) to the end of his rope. His Warren Schmidt is on the verge of realizing that his life's work was worthless; you can feel the ice cracking in his psyche as an old associate stands to toast him, proclaiming that if a man can be proud of his work, "he can retire in glory and enjoy riches far beyond the monetary kind."
There's no glory in Schmidt's life, not even the common sort that the movies usually afford their Everymen. His wife is a dead-eyed dullard; his house is no homier than a 1970s furniture show room. When his stiff of a wife dies right after his retirement, Schmidt loses it, then sets out to find it, then loses it again, and so on. About Schmidt is a road movie on the other end of life's cycle from Nicholson's Easy Rider, as full of metaphoric ambition and as devoid of solid meaning.
Schmidt sets out in his gargantuan RV, hoping to derail his daughter's wedding to Dermot Mulroney, who is doing a fine impression of Keanu Reeves' Bill and Ted character as a middle-aged man. Instead of changing his daughter's life, of course, he finds out some things about his own. The most interesting way in which the movie communicates this is through Schmidt's letters to Ndugu, an African child he sponsors with monthly checks. The voice-over letters are something of a narrative cop-out, but they provide some of the funniest moments in this very occasionally hilarious film; the way Nicholson's character imagines Ndugu to be interested in his petty problems sets Schmidt up for mockery, and for a contrived but strangely transcendent moment at the story's end, which allows Nicholson the kind of moment actors kill for.
While the actor has abandoned his vanity to portray this character, and does an astounding job of it, the director doesn't seem to know what to do with him. He wants to milk Schmidt for laughs while simultaneously wringing pathos from him - this has been done successfully in other films, but Payne doesn't quite get the balance right. Too often, the humor comes at the expense of a character we are meant to care about; when the character is played by, say, Kathy Bates, the actress can take the condescension while protecting her character's soul. Other actors aren't quite as adept.
So we are left, like co-workers sending one of their own into the long winter of retirement, looking at a film that is smart and funny but didn't quite do what it set out to. We praise the performances, making sure to say how well Jack and Kathy did, but insincerity creeps into our voices when we tell the crowd that this film changed us or taught us something worth knowing. There is a gold watch to be given away, but we will forget the retiree long before we expect to.
— John DeFore
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