By John H. Foote

The single most unexpected delight of the season is this lovely film about an unlikely friendship based on the true story of Don Shirley and Tony Lip. Shirley was a cultured, gifted pianist hired by rich whites to tour through the American south in the sixties when racism was at its worst. He could play in venues, but was not permitted to dine or even use the washroom. Tony Lip was the rough and tumble bouncer he hired to protect and drive him for four months.

Viggo Mortensen gives a brilliant, Oscar worthy performance as Tony Lip, a loving father and husband who cracks heads when people get out of line at the Copacabana night club. When the club shuts down for repairs, he is suddenly out of work, and though the local mob would put him to work, he has no interest. Instead he goes to work for a black man, Don Shirley, an educated man who speaks several languages and has read the works of the great masters. They come from different worlds and have nothing in common, but they evolve on the road, they learns from each other, they trust one another and and become the very best of friends.

Shirley at first cannot abide Tony’s constant talking and enormous appetite, but he starts to listen and begins to learn things from the tough guy, something he thought could never happen. Tony, on the other hand, finds himself deeply moved by the playing of the black man, he has never heard music so beautiful and cannot understand why the white folks welcome him to play, applaud him, but will not permit him to dine with them. He is ashamed of his own racism and accepts everything about his boss, even the homosexuality.

Both actors work magic in their roles, playing off each other like great jazz. Mortensen gives a broad comic performance, something he has never done before, while Ali is the more laid back of the pair, hiding his emotions lest he be recognized for what he is, which is terrified. As we head towards Oscar night, both actors are nominated with Ali the likely winner.

Peter Farrelly directed the film, a surprise because he has not directed anything remotely this fine. Usually his films are vulgar, sex laden affairs, such as Something About Mary (1998). Green Book was a huge change of pace for the director and he knocked it right out of the park with one of the best films of the year. A standing ovation greeted this film the first time it was screened at TIFF, and it recently won the PGA as Best Film of the Year. It could easily be the winner Oscar night. One of the most beautiful films about friendship I have ever seen.

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