Stitched together but fits great. Take one part night club bouncer and one part prince of the concert stage and one part concert tour. The unemployed night club bouncer is working as a driver/valet/body guard for the pianist. They leave together and head Midwest then South; an odd pair of ducks flying together. The bouncer is a fish out of water at the beginning. Both Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) are played with skill and authenticity. The story takes on some hackneyed plot twists, but by the end of the second act, this road trip gets very interesting.
The pair is composed of a highly educated black man and an Italian from the streets of Brooklyn. The story of the two men starts out as just awkward and goes onto a genuine truth. At first, the black man wants to refine the Italian man. Then they learn from each other, not unexpected but in ways that are unexpected. Tony is rough on the outside but has a lot of kindness underneath his skin. Dr. Shirley has hidden secrets. We learn that they are both complex characters.
It’s 1962, a time more divided than today. The country is one of racial , ethnic, and regional divisions. The white characters in the Deep South are portrayed tritely. They seem like all the other mean white southern hicks you meet in movies. Hate against the Negros for sure but hate against the Northerners and probably anybody different from their selves.
The pair face many adventures. Some are unique and some are par for the course. The pianist’s journey is about courage and great music. Tony’s adventure broadens his outlook on the lives of others. It takes him from his New York borough to see much of the USA with its natural beauty and human ugliness. He yearns for home but desperately needs the pay to support his family.
Unfortunately, the movie’s comedy mainly consists of "tee-hees" about Tony’s accent, misuse of grammar, brutish manor and his general lack of sophistication. Are the jokes at his expense made to elevate the superiority of Dr. Shirley?
After so many years of blacks on screen being demeaned, how ironic it is that a movie in 2018 uses a humble white ethic as a foil. This is no coincidence. The country today is divided between the sophistication of its affluent college grads and the lower income unsophisticated non-college grads. I was in a theater watching this movie with a "toney" well-educated crowd. They seemed to enjoy all the jokes at Tony’s expense. This humiliation plays right into the hands of today’s USA where the poor and undereducated are treated as inferior to the elites. “I won’t ride the bus and I won’t eat at McDonalds ‘cause I don’t like the class of people there.” This is something I’ve heard and there are many more people who think this way but they won’t say it out loud.
The pianist is on a crusade to leave his safe space in New York and crack through the racial hate. He lives a stressful existence in his own world between whites and blacks. He speaks several languages and is more comfortable with foreigners who provide an escape for him. He is a highly intelligent, peaceful man. But he is torn between accepting racism and possessing his musical greatness.
He doesn’t seem to have a place anywhere. His talent in classical music is limited by his lack of acceptance in white society. His is a victim of racial prejudice. The blacks don’t appreciate his music or his cultured aura. Tony who grew up in a tough neighborhood knows how to come out on top and is good at it. Inside he is loyal and honest when it counts and sincerely loves his wife and family. By the end of the trip, they both come out better with a greater understanding of humanity.
What makes the story move is not the hackneyed action, but is the character of its two leading actors and the relationship that develops. I am sure Steven Spielberg, the executive producer, loved this script. It is the kind of story he likes with meaning between the action and heart underneath of it. The audience witnesses a transformation which leads to a bond between the two men. Even though I tried not to, I was tearing up at the end. The movie’s heart came out at the ending. The love between the two men is palpable. It is genuine and real. The script and dialogue make it happen. This is the best Christmas time story I have ever seen. The two men resolve their differences and become united souls.