An Italian tough guy takes a job driving a gay, African-american artist through the pre-Civil Rights Act Deep South. By the end of the movie, the driver has realized that his boss is a person too. Meanwhile, the musician has learned to be a black man and to play black music and has even decided to come down off his high-and-mighty African throne, to leave his lonely gay castle, and to hang out with the driver’s family who are ready to accept him as if he were just a regular normal person. Ugh.
Formally, there’s nothing going on here. This is a well made conventional movie that is as by-the-book as they come. Drop the production value and cast some B- or C-tier stars and the film could be made for television. It is easy to look at, easy to watch, and easy to like without ever thinking about anything other than how great these guys are and how lucky they are to have each other in this bad, bad world that makes them both suffer. It is a near-perfect example of what Milan Kundera called kitsch: an object that allows us the opportunity to be pleased with our ability to shed tears.
Story-wise, I find this movie shocking. A story is a thought about the world, and this film’s thinking is as backwards and as out-of-touch as its most vociferous critics claim. It doesn’t deserve the work Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen put into it, and without their efforts, this movie likely would have bombed. But here’s the problem: focus on how these two weave their performances together and it’s easy to forget to notice (and definitely to wonder why) this movie is about the experiences of the guy who doesn’t think or reflect and who barely changes at all and not about the man who’s life provides the film with its conflict, who has chosen to embark on a personal, political quest and yet who remains in the end an enigma.
I think Ali earns his Oscar by constructing a performance to highlight the film’s blindness to his character’s life. (Think of the smile he flashes at the end of every musical number.) The film as a whole though neither earns nor deserves its Oscar. That the Academy voters would choose this film as the Best Picture of 2018 is an embarrassment and is depressing.