Antwone Fisher and Evelyn (review)

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Family Men

“Write what you know,” beginning writers are told, and many first screenplays are semiautobiographical. Antwone Fisher really took this advice — of dubious quality to begin with — to heart, and wrote a screenplay called Antwone Fisher about what a wonderful person is a young man named Antwone Fisher.

It takes a special kind of presumption to write a story about yourself and give not only the lead character but the story itself your own name. I suppose the real Fisher must be forgiven for feeling proud of the basic decency he managed to hang on to, given the horrendous upbringing he endured, but still, the hubris is breathtaking.

If you didn’t know the behind-the-scenes story of the story, though, what you’d find in Antwone Fisher is a more-than-averagely pleasing, more-than-averagely touching tale of survival of a personal hell. It’s neatly and cleanly Hollywood-idealistic, true, and if the whole package feels Oscar-ready, it’s probably because it is, but it’s still worth a look-see for some excellent performances and restrained direction from first-timer Denzel Washington that reigns in the triumph-of-the-human-spirit sap that tends to sink awards bait like this.
The extraordinary Viola Davis (Solaris, Far from Heaven), in one starkly unsentimental scene, practically steals the movie from Derek Luke, but not quite. Luke, whose previous acting experience is apparently limited to a few tiny roles on a couple of sitcoms, is remarkable as Fisher, whom we first meet as a Navy sailor with an anger problem. Sent for counseling to Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington: John Q, Training Day), Fisher is little more than seething rage, closed off from the world. Washington’s usual grace onscreen this time extends offscreen as he takes a rather thankless father-figure/role-model like Davenport, in which he nurtures Fisher out of his emotional shell, and from behind the camera coaxes Luke through Fisher’s blossoming as a mature man able to confront his past and come to terms with it. Through Davenport’s sessions with Fisher, the young man’s childhood tale of abandonment, of abusive foster homes, of homelessness and hopelessness comes out, and though it follows a predictable path to redemption and acceptance and understanding of the value of family, it does so genuinely enough that the sniffles it eventually elicits aren’t resented. Washington and Fisher tug on the heartstrings, but they don’t yank.

Though it might not appear, at first glance, to have much in common with Antwone Fisher, Evelyn shares much. Both are based on true stories. Both are labors of love for big-name actors moving behind the camera for the first time. But most tellingly for the pop culture climate of the moment, both are warmly sentimental stories about men discovering the significance of and eventually fighting for, in one way or another, their families. Whether it’s the influence of Dr. Phil and Oprah or the cultural pendulum swinging back toward the more traditional and conservative, something is afoot: the idea of Family is getting a boost from the other side of the bed.

A labor of love first for screenwriter Paul Pender and then for Pierce Brosnan’s production company, Irish DreamTime, this is the (semi) true story of Desmond Doyle, who in the 1950s took his cause — custody of his children — all the way to the Irish Supreme Court. Frequently charming and characteristically Irish, with equal dollops of humor, black humor, and just plain blackness, Evelyn follows Doyle’s (Brosnan: Die Another Day, Dolphins) maddening, frustrating maneuvering of a Catch-22 built into the family law of Ireland, which requires the signatures of both parents, if alive, in order to remove a child from state care. The law apparently never dared to imagine that a mother might abandon her children, as Mrs. Doyle did, running off with another man to somewhere in Australia, and while a judge promised Doyle, struggling to find work in a perpetually depressed country, that his children would be returned to him as soon as he was able to support them, this has turned out not to be the case.

If there was ever any doubt that Brosnan had more in him than coolly charming sophisticates like Remington Steele and James Bond, those doubts are readily dispelled with his ardent, heartfelt portrayal of Doyle, an artless working-class man whose greatest pleasures in life are a pint, a song, and his children. Brosnan has never been better than he is here with the young actors playing his kids, and particularly with 9-year-old Sophie Vavasseur (Reign of Fire), a captivating natural actor, as Evelyn, the eldest Doyle child — together, they create a wholly believable and deeply touching relationship that becomes all the more moving the longer they are separated.

With their tales of family reunion — and you already knew the endings are happy ones — Antwone Fisher and Evelyn are seemingly tailor-made for the holiday season. And that’s just fine. A good weeper or two goes down nicely with the turkey and apple pie.

Antwone Fisher
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for violence, language and mature thematic material involving child abuse
official site | IMDB

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for thematic material and language
official site | IMDB

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