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By Merle Bertrand | May 18, 2000

“Loneliness ain’t no laughing matter,” intones retired Jamaican janitor and former mental patient Obidiah “Fish” Johnson (James Earl Jones) solemnly. Yet, director Charles Burnett’s touching yet hilarious “The Annihilation of Fish” somehow defies that maxim. The efforts of widowed landlady Mrs. Mulroone (Margot Kidder) and her oddball senior citizen tenants Fish and Poinsettia Cummings (Lynn Redgrave) to combat loneliness and find a reason to keep on living are the themes of this brave, absurdly ridiculous, yet heartwarming golden years romantic comedy. Mrs. Mulroone, adamant about spelling her name with the “e” she tacked on to the end to spite her abusive husband, nonetheless carefully nurses a stubborn weed in her garden as a sort of tribute to him. Seems it so infuriated the man, it caused him to die of a heart attack. Fish, meanwhile, has spent the past ten years of his life in a mental home. There, he periodically wrestled with Hank, an invisible demon and cheap-shot artist he once caught looking up a woman’s skirt. Finally, Poinsettia has spent almost that long trying to marry her paramour, an invisible Italian opera singer who died in 1938. When Fish hears his lonely neighbor lady stumbling up the stairs and finds her passed out in the hallway after a desperate binge at a local bar, he tenderly tucks her in on his couch. As a result, the two forge a gradual, if awkward, friendship, especially once she nervously agrees to referee his matches with Hank. Eventually, their relationship blossoms into a twilight romance. But as Poinsettia starts hearing wedding bells again, Fish realizes that Hank hasn’t come round in a while. Seems the demon won’t fight Fish any longer because he’s sleeping with the referee. Thus torn between ending his romance with Poinsettia or being forced into early retirement from wrestling, Fish knows that either choice will annihilate him by depriving him of his reason for living. Burnett has crafted a poignant, utterly believable film out of the most unlikely of set-ups. While Redgrave and Kidder, nearly unrecognizable under her “American Gothic” gray-haired wig, ostensibly share the leads and successfully bring their complicated characters to life, this baby is Jones’ show to steal and steal it he does. A formidable presence throughout his career, it’s disconcerting at first to watch him in such a seriously undignified, borderline slapstick role. Yet, he absolutely nails it. (If you thought you’ve seen everything, wait until you see James Earl Jones in a sex scene.) Romantic comedies have become something of a tired staple in indie filmmaking, these days. Yet, odd as it may seem, it’s the unlikely interracial geriatric chops on display in “The Annihilation of Fish” that breathe new life into the genre.

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