Directed by Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.
2 hrs., 10 mins.
We’ve seen versions of this movie before: Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, Loving, Hidden Figures — even as far back as 1958’s The Defiant Ones and 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. All three, by the way, starring Sidney Poitier.
And so we come to Green Book. Inspired by a true story, it does manage to turn racial stereotypes on their ears and reverse the usual roles of black and white interaction in a way that may or may not be inspirational, depending on your cultural politics. Still, it tells a great story, and with comedy director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) at the helm, you might find it surprising and even touching.
Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer in the New York night club Copacabana. When it shuts down for renovations, Tony, with a wife and two kids to support, is in desperate need of work. His world is the tough and shady underground that surrounds New York entertainment, including connections to local mafiosos.
Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a renowned musician and pianist living at the esteemed Carnegie Hall. His is a world of international travel, high culture and impeccable manners. He has plans to take an eight-week tour with his musical trio, traveling through the Deep South as far as Macon, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama.
Shirley needs a driver who will not only get him to his concerts but also serve as muscle when needed and company for the long journey. Because of Tony’s reputation, and despite his reservations about the man’s manners and speech, Shirley hires him.
As you might surmise, things don’t always go well. Shirley is talented but isolated and often drunk. He’s also careless about his personal safety. Tony is tough and talkative, but he also notices that Shirley is lacking friends and family. He tries in his own New York way to connect.
It’s a case of opposites being forced to live within each other’s orbit, and little things matter. Discovering Kentucky Fried Chicken. Writing letters home. Finding somewhere to sleep. They have no choice but to get along and try to survive each other’s personal differences.
As director, Farrelly shows a surprising amount of restraint in keeping this story moving without resorting to his usual funny-bone tactics. He avoids the farce in favor of the humanity and humor of the story itself.
Even in writing the screenplay with Tony’s real-life son, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Hayes Currie, Farrelly sticks to the story and has the good sense to realize this journey is entertaining enough and needs no embellishment. With Doc and Tony, the conversation is always lively.
But at the heart of the story is that intangible spark of connection between Mortensen and Ali. Beyond the critique of racial profiling, they each hold their own and give convincing portrayals. Mortensen has gained considerable weight and mastered a good Bronx accent for Tony, while Ali’s ramrod straight posture reflects both Doc’s proud heritage and his unbending principles. In their own ways, they’re both men with strong opinions about life, and the actors infuse their roles with toughness and grit.
The questions that dog this film are this: Can a white director and a white actor delve genuinely into the African American experience? And is the African American experience as well-defined as white audiences often assume? In an age of Black Lives Matter, do films like Green Book only muddy the waters?
Beyond social sensitivities, however, Green Book is thoughtful and the music is a revelation. If nothing else, it will add to our understanding of African American culture and open the door to appreciating Shirley — the man and his piano, his willingness to put himself at risk for the sake of his art — and to remember that in the 20th century and beyond, black music changed the world forever.