COMIC DRAMA; 2hr 10min
STARRING: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Table manners: Mortensen (left) and Ali
In the New York City of 1962, racism is alive and thriving as far as Bronx bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) is concerned. Tony is a brawny, blinkered Italian-American hustler, temporarily unemployed due to nightclub repairs. With two young boys and a loving, tolerant wife (Cardellini) to support, he takes a job as chauffeur and minder to celebrated pianist Dr Don Shirley (Moonlight’s chameleonic Ali).
Not only is Dr Shirley an African-American in a Jim Crow era that feels cringe-inducingly close to our own, but he’s the sort of finicky aesthete who interviews potential staff from a throne in his Carnegie Hall apartment and travels in the back seat of his record-company Cadillac Coupe De Ville with a rug draped over his knees. He’ll be seeing a lot of that rug, incidentally, since, with the dubious support of a segregationist guidebook, The Negro Motorist Green Book, he and his new hire will be touring the Deep South for eight eventful weeks.
From day one, Tony and Dr Shirley could scarcely be more mismatched; the doctor a classically trained paragon of scholarly, disdainful elegance and staggering talent, his chain-smoking driver a bellicose and perpetually ravenous gasbag. Their oil-meets-water dynamic is a hoot at first—no massive stretch with Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary…) in the director’s chair. But as the miles unspool, each man begins to appreciate the strengths of the other. From the rough diamond at the wheel, the doctor learns to loosen up, while Tony comes face-to-face with the slings and arrows of the ostracism that Don Shirley has long been forced to live with.
Playing off these comfy beats of connectivity, Mortensen and Ali settle into their characters with scrupulous nuance and not a lick of schmaltz. That their reading of Tony and Don’s transformative friendship is based on past events, its screenplay co-written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s eldest son, Nick, adds an uncommon crunch to a feast of southern-fried chook.