An old-fashioned racial mash-up of Driving Miss Daisy and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Green Book is an exceedingly pleasant two-hander that soars off the pinball chemistry of stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Mortensen plays Tony Lip, a Bronx-dwelling bullshit artist and Copa fixer hired to drive and serve as bodyguard for flamboyant piano aficionado Don Shirley (Ali) as he tours the American south. The stick in the proverbial spokes? Shirley is a black man and the year is 1962. Jim Crow lurks everywhere.
Green Book refers to a “handy” manual – its full name “The Negro Motorist Green Book” – that promised to take the stress out of travel by providing a list of establishments where those of the African persuasion could stay, dine, rest. As the accomplished pianist and his rough-around-the-edges muscle-man tinker their way through the Deep South, the film finds dynamic ways to explore the racial divide – from moments of expected police brutality and blatant violent racism to a stock-taking pause where field workers stand perplexed by the vision of a white man driving around a smartly dressed black man.
The film, written by Nick Vallelonga (son of the real Tony Lip), Brian Hayes Currie (longtime bit player), and director Peter Farrelly (more on him later), takes time for deep reflection, resulting in a thoughtful examination of race, sexuality, and power dynamics while offering characters and lands that feel lived in and rich. Moments shared between Tony and Don unspool bias in a gentle, organic manner – never feeling spoon-fed or chintzy in its construction. Built from different cloth, the two men bicker and roll their eyes at one another but as their mutual respect for one another grows, so too does their understanding. And in a year like 2018, a film about overcoming differences to find respect and love in the overlaping ven diagram of life is about as important a message as we could ask for.
Director Peter Farrelly – who made a name in the 90s directing zany comedies with his brother Bobby – was once a hot ticket commodity. Churning out comedy mainstays the likes of Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Kingpin, before turning to not so successful modern duds (Fever Pitch, Hall Pass, The Three Stooges), the director has executed a remarkable 180 with Green Book, delivering a delicately constructed drama of great poise and intelligence that few expected the once-comic director capable.
Not many probably consider Farrelly’s movies as great bastions of acting but, as the old saying goes, “Tragedy is easy – it’s comedy that’s hard.” Looking into his track-record as a performer’s director, Farrelly is responsible for a handful of the most iconic comic performances before the turn of the century (his work with Jim Carrey alone is noteworthy) and with Green Book applies a deft touch that sees his performers soar. The chemistry between Ali and Mortensen is electrice and Farrelly captures it like lightning bottled. The movie’s fine-tuned blend of breezy antics and affecting drama is the product of a director with demonstrable chops, obscured though they may have been.
Mortensen, who is campaigning as the film’s lead, is truly superb as the unpolished, overweight heavy – a good soul grimed up by years of cheap tricks, easy money, and shortcuts. He’s the kind of guy who bets his rent money on a hot dog eating contest and from putting on a few (read: many) extra pounds to adopting a thick Italian accent, Mortensen nails the role like a punch in the schnauz, Italian heritage or no.
In 2017, Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his relatively small role in Moonlight and he’s back swinging for the fences with his turn as Don Shirley. His performance is a thing of restrained glory – revealing a tender, thoughtful man surrounded by walls society has built around him. He hasn’t found his place with common African American society, nor is he accepted as anything more than a talented curio in white society. In an explosive moment, Don howls, “If I’m not Black enough and I’m not white enough, then tell me what am I?”
Green Book takes this germ and explores it dutifully, blooming into an easy-to-watch if nonetheless potent character study of these two men. Through the lens of Don and Tony, Farrelly explores the notion of individual identity in a time where broad brushstrokes were applied liberally to blacks. Don’s courage to embark on a mission to civilize through the Jim Crow south – through model behavior and turning of the other cheek – remains an important reminder that civility has never been more needed.
CONCLUSION: ‘Green Book’ works pretty much however you break it down. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are divine as a traveling odd couple, Peter Farrelly’s directorial skills are in sharp focus, and the story is both good-natured and vital. It’s the kind of family-friendly message movie that comes too infrequently, made with all the right attention to detail.