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The awards race received an unexpected jolt on Tuesday night when Green Book, a dramedy about the African-American piano virtuoso Don Shirley (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) and his unsophisticated Italian-American driver Tony Lip (Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen) touring the South during the Civil Rights era, had its first screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and blew the roof off Roy Thomson Hall and then the Elgin Theatre in quick succession.
I say “unexpected” because the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, is best known for laugh-out-loud but decidedly un-Oscar-friendly comedies like Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, and also because the film’s distributor, Universal, which will release the film Nov. 21, has deliberately underhyped this one. In any event, by the time the first end credits started to roll at the Elgin screening, which I attended, the audience burst into a standing ovation that continued and only grew louder as the talent behind the film was introduced to the stage for a Q&A.
Green Book is not edgy or unpredictable or unlike anything you’ve seen before — it’s essentially a road movie about opposites attracting and learning from each other (almost an inverse Driving Miss Daisy, the best picture Oscar winner 29 years ago). But it charmingly evokes laughs and tears in all the right places, thanks in no small part to the original screenplay by Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Farrelly, but more than anything to the winning performances by Mortensen and Ali, two of the most versatile and likable actors in the biz, who are perfectly cast in this film.
Expect a groundswell of awards support for Mortensen in the lead actor category and Ali in the supporting actor category that he won just two seasons ago for Moonlight — and maybe even for best picture, too. Indeed, we live in an era in which more than five films (up to 10) can be nominated for best picture, and in recent years other populist studio fare — movies that played better with audiences than critics, because they have heart and don’t pretend to be more profound than they are — have made the cut, from The Blind Side to The Help, both of which also happened to deal with matters related to race.
There is no reason why Green Book can’t join that list.
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