Goodbye and have a nice day

Film - Philip Kerr on why a good story is no big deal for the Hollywood studios

Getting through the door is not the hardest thing about pitching a story in Hollywood. These days more or less anyone can get through the gate of a major Hollywood studio. No, the hardest thing about pitching is getting the studio executive to pay attention. After all, you have to compete with a number of distractions. These range from the telephone to the frankly bizarre. On one particular occasion, I pitched a story to the studio head at Fox - not just any story, but a story to which Robert De Niro was already attached as "the element" - while the numskull practised his baseball swing.

I don't know why that still surprises me. Most studio executives hear a dozen good stories a day. Telling a good story is not the way to get a studio executive's attention. Good stories bore them. In the much-underrated King of Comedy (1983), De Niro played Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comedy writer who kidnaps the man he most wants to read his stuff. Good idea. I'm surprised more people don't try it for real - although there is the danger you might get shot.

Getting through the gate of a studio may not be the hardest thing about pitching a story idea, but it's not the easiest, either. Especially since 9/11. Even Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard had to negotiate her way through the main gate at Paramount to see Mr De Mille. These days, without an appointment, she would not stand a chance. For example, late last year, a security guard at DreamWorks refused no less a person than Steven Spielberg entry to the studio because he wasn't in possession of a pass. Spielberg was obliged to wait at the gate until he could produce another form of identification. Now that's what I call a captive audience.

Presumably this is how Antwone Fisher, who was a security guard at Sony Pictures, managed to get Denzel Washington's attention. I can hear the dialogue now:

"Hey, Mr Washington. I loved you in Crimson Tide. Great movie."

"Thank you very much."

"I was in the navy."

"You were?"

"You should read my book about it."

"What's it called?"

"Antwone Fisher, sir. It's my life story. Make a great movie. And there's a great part for you. There you go. You can park your car over there. Have a nice day."

Unfortunately, herein lies the main problem with Antwone Fisher the film. It's a screenplay by Antwone Fisher, based on a book by Antwone Fisher, about the life of Antwone Fisher. I'm already bored just writing that. In no way is this a story that was ever worth filming. It feels, sounds and looks like something we have seen many, many times before. Think Good Will Hunting, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, except that Antwone Fisher is no mathematical genius, as (improbably enough) was Matt Damon's character in that earlier film. It is true that about halfway through the film Fisher recites a poem he has written, but this is merely enough to convince you that literary talent has bypassed him altogether, and that he richly deserves the obscurity life has planned for him.

Before working as a security guard, Antwone Fisher was in the navy, which is where the beginning of the movie finds him - as a young sailor with an anger management problem. Insubordinate and belligerent, Fisher is one problem sailor who the US navy would like to be rid of. In the old days of R H Dana and Herman Melville, the officers would have had Fisher tied to a cannon and given 50 lashes with the cat, and he'd have been cured. But, sadly, these are more enlightened times, and the navy sends Antwone Fisher to a service shrink, played by Denzel Washington, who makes his directorial debut with this picture.

In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams played a recently widowed shrink trying to cope with his own bereavement and a troubled young patient whose low self-esteem relates to his abusive childhood experiences as an orphan. In Antwone Fisher, Washington plays a shrink trying to deal with his wife's childlessness (Salli Richardson plays the wife) and with a troubled young patient whose low self-esteem relates to his abusive childhood experiences as an orphan.

You see what I mean about a good story? In Hollywood, you don't need a good story. You just need to get someone's attention.

This is Washington's second time in a navy uniform; he wore one in Crimson Tide. He looks good in uniform. Maybe that was one of the things he liked about Fisher's pitch. But he reveals no great talent as a director. The film looks like a recruiting advertisement for a caring, sharing US navy. Worst of all, he completely muffs the end in so far as his own character resolution is concerned. Stick to acting, Denzel, that's my advice.

As for Antwone Fisher himself, I just hope he hasn't given up his position on the gate at Sony Pictures.

Antwone Fisher (15) is on general release