Green Book (PG-13)
Green Book is a feel-good, based-on-a-true-story film with two outstanding lead performances, and it’s nearly impossible not to like.
Set in 1962, Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Vallelonga, who everyone calls Tony Lip (not Tony the lip). He lives in the Bronx and works as a bouncer at the Copacabana. He’s gruff, quick-tempered and not very smart.
When the Copa has to close for renovations, Frank is recommended for a driving job. A bit of a bigot, he’s not thrilled to learn that Dr. Don Shirley, (Mahershala Ali), who he thought was a “real doctor” is actually a black musician, who lives above Carnegie Hall and needs a chauffeur for a two-month tour of the South.
The interview doesn’t go well, maybe because Shirley conducts the interview sitting on a throne, but Shirley needs a good driver who can also handle the trouble a black man could get into in Alabama. Green Book refers to the travel guide that listed the places where Blacks could stay back then.
Frank leaves his practically perfect wife (Linda Cardellini) and his two adorable sons, and huge extended family to drive Dr. Shirley on his concert tour which includes playing at private receptions in homes along the way.
At first, the journey is more of a battle of wills. Shirley tells Tony to keep his eyes on the road, put out his cigarette and even suggests he adopt a new last name for the tour, because his is difficult to pronounce. Tony asks a lot of questions that Shirley doesn’t want to answer. But after enough time in the car together, Frank gets Shirley to eat without utensils and Shirley helps Frank write more romantic letters to his wife.
While Dr. Shirley is revered for his artistry, he is still subjected to subtle, but more often overt and even violent racism. And his instincts to hire Tony prove right, as his driver uses his street smarts and smooth talk, as well as a threat here and there, to keep his boss safe.
This probably doesn’t sound like the kind of movie you’d expect from director Peter Farrelly, who is best known for bringing us There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. While some of the scenes are a bit obvious, Farrelly infuses Green Book with a keen sensitivity, attention to detail, and just the right amount of humor.
He also gets fantastic performances out of his lead actors, although admittedly he has a lot to work with. Mortensen and Ali have an easy and slightly edgy chemistry. Mortensen, who I have mentioned before, is a criminally underrated actor, gained 45 pounds to play Tony. The extra weight makes him more imposing and believable when he folds a whole pizza and shoves it in his mouth. He’s not a smart guy, but he’s savvy. He’s a devoted husband, but a bit of a brute. While we like Tony more at the end of the movie, to Mortensen’s credit, he’s still a lug, just a slightly more sensitive lug.
The movie focuses more on Tony, likely because it was cowritten by Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. But Shirley is the more interesting and complicated character, magnetic on stage, he’s lonely in life, stoic and controlling, he also drinks too much. Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for Moonlight, is compelling in his ability to convey so much with his eyes and even his posture. Even in the most charged and dramatic scenes, Ali maintains a quiet dignity and when he plays the piano, we can’t take our eyes off him. The music, by the way, is terrific.
Green Book might be a bit conventional at times, and the ending is a bit too cute, but it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year and a great story with two extraordinary performances.
Green Book: 4 ½ Stars