Sometimes a movie that’s been panned turns out to be more enjoyable than those that appeal to critics who pay attention to words like auteur and oeuvre. Sometimes a bowl of mac and cheese is preferable to pate de foie gras and so it is with great pleasure that I urge you to treat yourself to some comfort food in the sizable portion of Viggo Mortenson as you haven’t seen him before.
Playing a mob-connected, volatile bouncer who loses his job at the Copacabana, Viggo accepts a temporary job as chauffeur to Dr. Don Shirley, a classically trained pianist and head of a trio who must do a road trip from New York to the deep south. He needs a man like Viggo, trained in the public relations insights of bouncers because Dr. Shirley is a black man who will be barred from hotels, clubs and dining rooms yet is determined to provoke precisely those confrontations while en route.
To a certain extent, the set-up is a reverse rip-off of Driving Miss Daisy with a working class white man chauffeuring an elite and educated black man who trained in Russia, speaks multiple languages, knows little about pop music or its new stars but is immensely gifted and sought after as a performer. These two men have virtually nothing in common and the gentle comedy that ensues from their mismatch is what fuels the plot. It is the best part of the movie which loses its panache when it tries to drive home the already obvious message - segregation was bad and racists resisted the legal efforts to integrate the south.
Part of the problem is that Dr. Don Shirley, a man invested in the power of personal dignity is a stiff-necked goody two-shoes, determined to correct Viggo’s grammar, speech patterns and habits learned in the old neighborhood in the Bronx. We are amazed at his talent and genius (he was a real person for those who never heard him). But of course, Viggo - handsome even with a paunch - has the charm and common sense that often tag along with the personalities of bad boys and he remains the object of interest throughout.
Don’t minimize the skill involved in his performance - he is never out of character for a single moment and though he works with gangsters and people who don’t wait for backtalk, he manages to make us believe that he’s primarily a family man with a genuine capacity for friendship and love. Think Damon Runyon along with the mis-pronunciations and misunderstanding of vocabulary to distract us from what gangsters do. This movie will remind you of that disarming author and you’ll really enjoy yourself without working too hard. Just see it.
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