Some of my movie friends were stunned when I mentioned in a thread that this was my “People’s Choice Award” vote for TIFF 2018 (it won, btw). I generally go for weightier fare, so my being won over by a PG-13 road film with the familiar “they-couldn’t-have-been-more-different” premise directed by the auteur co-responsible for such recent classics as “Dumb and Dumber To” and “The Three Stooges” elicited a virtual double-take.
But I couldn’t help it … it really WAS the best film I saw (out of 17), and far and away the most entertaining. I think this is largely because it’s based on a real-life story about the beginning of a lifelong friendship – a story that has writing participation by the son of one of the real-life characters. There’s definitely an air of authenticity to the events as they unfold that could never occur with a purely contrived plot. Consider: A college-educated concert pianist of Jamaican descent hires a temporarily-unemployed Italian-American nightclub bouncer who’s streetwise but academically dim to drive him to venues in the Deep South back in 1962. That’s not a setup that a Hollywood script written from scratch would ever have come up with.
The two lead actors really click. Mahershala Ali makes a nice Oscar follow-up playing the aloof pianist passenger to Viggo Mortensen’s “b.s. artist” driver. Ali is certain to get another nomination; Mortensen’s performance may be a little too broad to garner one, but he delivers exactly what’s called for. And he makes a believable Italian-American, which is impressive considering that he’s Danish.
I’m allergic to preaching and heavy-handedness in movies no matter what the message, and with the exception of one borderline scene, I’d say that the movie nicely sidesteps these proclivities that surface so often in socially-conscious films.
The music and FX are excellent. When an actor plays a piano player, there’s always the challenge of making the playing look believable. It doesn’t get any better than it gets here – Ali’s piano playing is every bit as convincing as Margot Robbie’s ice skating in I, TONYA. You never see a disconnect between hands and body as he’s filmed against a variety of backgrounds. And if I could bet on an Oscar win right now, it would be Kris Bowers for Best Original Score. (He also supplies Ali’s hands, which should clinch it.)
Top everything off with a Capra-esque Christmas Eve finale and a closing line that sends everyone home smiling, and it all adds up to a monster hit. Its commercial payoff could be huge – the movie practically begs for a TV series spinoff, and the real-life characters remained friends until they both died in 2013.
So congratulations to Peter Farrelly on his graduation from co-directing lowbrow fare to solo-directing middlebrow (i.e. mass-appeal) fare. You can’t deny the talent and craftsmanship it takes to make a mainstream movie that works as well as this one does.
Review by Art Snob