If Erin Brockovich had scripted the movie version of her life story, would she have called it "Erin Brockovich"? And doesn't the phrase "inspired by a true story" seem rather awkward when applied to a movie written by the person whose true story it is? It's hard not to wonder such things while watching Denzel Washington's directing debut a film of the kind routinely described as "inspirational" which was indeed written by the titular Antwone Fisher and drawn directly from his personal experiences. When we first glimpse San Diego-based seaman Fisher (well played by newcomer Derek Luke), he's a 25-year-old swabbie with an anger management problem that's dramatized in a brief and highly effective explosion of unmotivated violence. Since this isn't the first time the intelligent, artistic Fisher has flown off the handle in a frightening way, his compassionate captain (James Brolin) sends him to base psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington). After the obligatory sparring ("I don't have no problems," says Fisher defiantly), Fisher begins getting in touch with the roots of his anger, which lie in a hellish, inner-city childhood in foster care for which the word Dickensian is barely adequate. Fisher is eventually reunited with the family he never knew, falls in love with beautiful Navy brat Cheryl (Joy Bryant) and — somewhat less believably inspires Dr. Davenport to re-examine certain empty areas in his own life. Fisher's story, first told in his memoir Finding Fish, has been condensed and streamlined so that it all unfolds during his Naval hitch; subsequent gigs as a corrections officer and Sony Pictures security guard (during which he met producer Todd Black, his in to the movie business) have been excised. On a purely technical level, the film is unimpeachable. The performances are uniformly excellent, first-time director Washington keeps things moving with admirable efficiency, and if even half the abuse Fisher suffers in the film actually happened, it's a miracle he grew up to be a successful navigator of Hollywood's treacherous shoals rather than, say, an axe-murderer. But there's a vaguely self-congratulatory tone to the screenplay that's a bit off-putting. Two separate speeches about what a great guy Fisher turned out to be despite the odds (one delivered to the mother who abandoned him) seem excessive, and there are several other instances of manipulative sentimentality that a more objective screenwriter would almost certainly have deep-sixed.
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