Stop what you’re doing right now, and go see this movie. If it’s not out yet, go to your nearest theatre, camp out and wait. Some do it for another Harry Potter movie, or the Boba Fett Star Wars film. Do it for this one. I guarantee you’ll love it.
I was worried by the trailers. You see a dumb guy spitting out fancy food he’s tried at a swanky party. You see two guys (one black, one white) bicker in a car, which made me think it was going to be another cheesy Driving Miss Daisy (a movie my mom loves, that I hate). I’m going to have her watch this, to show how it could’ve been done. This is Driving Miss Daisy with balls. Meatballs.
This movie tells the real life story of a most unusual friendship. Tony “the Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer that can get things done. He needs a job while the club where he works (The Copacabana) is being remodeled. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) is a world-class pianist with successful records. He wants to go on a tour that includes the Deep South. He wants more than just a driver, and Tony fits the bill.
We see Tony’s family, and it’s nice that they’re not just a bunch of Italian goombas. They might not be the brightest bunch, but they’re a loving family (and it was great to see the talented stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco as the brother-in-law).
The first moment I knew this movie would be something special was when Don interviews Tony about the job. It was perfectly executed in every way. Tony doesn’t want to do laundry and shine shoes, and Don isn’t going to kiss his ass to get him to take the job. No screaming match ensues. Tony just turns him down. Of course, he ends up taking the job, and it becomes a road trip/buddy picture, that’s a wonderful two-hander. That doesn’t mean you won’t get a cliche or two. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a scene that doesn’t quite work (I’m thinking about the Kentucky Fried Chicken bit). Yet you can forgive a few flaws in a film that warms your heart so much. In fact, I was shocked that some critics gave it a bad review. Glancing at what they had to say, I saw phrases like “white washed,” “cliche,” and “too safe.” Oh, shut up you scrooges! This isn’t supposed to be some deep dive into racism in the South in 1962. What this is, is a beautiful story about a friendship about two people that come from two different worlds, meeting and learning from each other; a wealthy, successful musician and him mentoring a big lug that doesn’t even realize he has a bit of racism in himself. The issues of racism have been tackled better, and more seriously, in other films. So the way this story was presented, I’m just fine with. We get subtle scenes, where a person is too naive to realize it’s possible that an African-American man hasn’t heard Chubby Checker, or eaten fried chicken.
We’ve all enjoyed seeing the scene in the trailer in which Don helps Tony write a letter to his wife. The full scene in the movie is a delight. It’s a combination of romance and humor that’s just lovely.
There are a few scenes where Don scolds Tony. One of them is after he catches him playing dice with other drivers and servants behind the building. He nicely tells him if he needs more money he’ll pay him more. Realizing Tony just likes to gamble, Don sternly tells him, “They didn’t have the choice whether to be inside or not. You did!” And as Tony opens the door for him, he’s told “Wipe the dirt off your knees.”
There will be other times when Tony gives it to Don. It, too, will be warranted.
The cinematography by Sean Porter is gorgeous, and lets us totally inhabit the world these guys live in.
Obviously, the soundtrack is solid. You hear Timmy Shaw, Little Richard, The Blackwells, Professor Longhair, Jack’s Four, Bob Kelly, The Blue Jays, Aretha Franklin, and of course, the Don Shirley Trio (It’s funny that the Italian singer — Frankie Valli — is barely heard in the background in one scene). Your fingers will be movin’ along to DeBussy and Chopin (Joe Pen, as Tony calls him). The original music/score is by Kris Bowers (Of Monsters and Men).
The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son (he also plays one of the family members). One of the co-writers is also the director — Peter Farrelly. He and his brother are better known for their wacky comedies — There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, Kingpin, and Dumb and Dumber. Who knew he had this in him? It’s a road trip that’s going to end up driving all the way up to the Oscars, and deservedly so. The performances are all excellent, and the cast has incredible chemistry.
This movie was two hours and 10 minutes, and I wanted it to go on for another two hours. I didn’t want to stop spending time with these guys. In fact, I was driving home from the theatre and at a stoplight. I thought about the ending of the movie, and just started bawling my eyes out. It was just such a beautiful experience to watch.
At the start of the movie, this Italian family is excitedly standing around the TV hoping Roger Maris is going to hit a home run. When he does, they all scream with excitement. This is the anticipation I have every time I enter the doors of a movie theatre, but I don’t usually get to leave with that kind of excitement. This time, I did.
This gets 5 stars. It’s the best movie of the year