Directed by: Peter Farrelly – Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
This film hits Irish screens with several awards already under its belt, and an Academy Award nomination for best picture. Like many movies in the running for such prestigious gongs, it has its genesis in a real-life story – in this case the friendship between African-American classical and Jazz pianist, Don Shirley (Ali) and his driver/bodyguard, Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Mortensen), an Italian American bouncer.
The film follows them as Shirley tours the Deep South, where racial prejudices still run extremely high. Despite playing in lavish venues to wealthy audiences, he wasn’t allowed eat in restaurants, and was expected to use an outhouse as a bathroom. As a cultured and educated man, he found this (rightly) unacceptable, meaning that Tony often had his work cut out defending him. As they drive across the States, these two men, from wildly disparate backgrounds, develop a deep friendship and understanding of each other’s circumstances, which all sounds like a standard buddy movie.
However, this is so much more than that. It is a timely reflection of the effects of prejudice and bigotry, but it manages to make its point without ever feeling preachy. There are many light-hearted moments – often thanks to Tony – that juxtapose nicely with the darkness of the issues at the heart of the story. It builds beautifully to the more impactful moments, and despite the humiliations and hardships endured by Shirley, it will give you a warm glow.
This is thanks in no small part to the chemistry between Ali and Mortensen. Both actors have, rightly, been nominated for Oscars, although Ali’s is in the Supporting Actor category, which I find astonishing. Without him there is no film, and he does a magnificent job of portraying Shirley. You can see at least half a dozen emotions bubbling under in every scene. All I can think is that the way the nominations landed is a studio ploy to give both a chance of winning, rather than having them compete against each other for the Best Actor.
Awards grumbles aside, Farrelly has done a fantastic job of capturing the era. You can almost smell the heat and humidity, as they make their way across the various states with each one almost more prejudiced than the last (if that’s possible). The cinematography is stunning, and kudos also to the sound editor, who has done a fantastic job.
There have been grumbles about inaccuracies in this film, but that is true of most ‘biopic’ type offerings. Those aside, it is a wonderful piece of work, that manages to educate subliminally while being extremely entertaining. You find yourself completely engaged in the two men’s story, and their friendship never slips into cheese or cliché.
At all times the tale is treated respectfully, and with the dignity that the real Shirley possessed, by all accounts. In a very impressive field, this is a serious contender for the Best Picture Oscar, and is somewhat of a modern classic.
In Cinemas January 30th! Trailer below: