‘Green Book’ is Gold-Plated, Feel-Good Holiday Road Trip
Starring Mahershala Ali & Viggo Mortensen
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Ready for a road trip?
A Hollywood staple for decades, road movies feature characters who get closer as they travel farther along.
The delightful Green Book is a road movie about Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a cultured black classical pianist who leaves his palatial home in New York City to embark on a two-month concert tour throughout the deep South in the early 1960s. For a chauffeur, he hires Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip, a mouthy Italian-American muscleman temporarily out of work from his job as a nightclub bouncer.
When this odd couple hits the road in their big, bright turquoise Ford Fairlane, they’re guided by the publication for which the movie takes its title. The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a pocket travel atlas—published from the late 1930s though the mid 1960s—created to assist black motorists with information on restaurants and lodging in the South during a time of widespread discrimination and segregation.
The last stop on the tour is Dec. 23 in Birmingham. Will Tony and Don make it home for Christmas?
This Green car is full of gold—Oscar gold. Ali won the Supporting Actor trophy last year for Moonlight, and Mortensen’s been nominated twice, for his outstanding star turns in Captain Fantastic (2017) and Eastern Promises (2008). Both are pitch-perfect in their roles here, and the buzz is that either could be a strong contender again this season for more awards.
Mortensen packed on 30 pounds to play Tony, a beefy palooka with entry-level mobster ties—and his own casually racist attitudes to overcome. He tries to understand why Don isn’t more connected to his “own” culture, including the popular music of Chubby Checker, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. “C’mon, Doc,” he says, “these are your people!” He’s a little bit Archie Bunker, a little bit Joe Pesci, and a movie-meatball wonder to behold.
Ali nails both the isolated genius and the anguished rage of Don, who’s performed at the White House, plays black-tie concerts at ritzy recital halls and entertains lily-white patrons in their mansions—but he’s not allowed to use their bathrooms or eat alongside them. He’s torn between worlds, but feels like a misfit in both. “I’m not white enough, I’m not black enough,” he says. “What am I?”
The movie lives and breathes as Don and Tony get to know each other. Tony steps in with his formidable fists when situations get dicey. Don coaches the nearly illiterate Tony on writing romantic “lettahs” back home to his wife (Linda Cardellini), and teaches him that the name of the classical composer was Chopin, not Joe Pan.
Green Book marks the flying-solo debut of director Peter Farrelly, best known for the yucky, gross-out, bro-fest comedies he made with his brother, Bobby—Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary. This is much more “grown-up” than any of those dopey, goofball romps, but there’s still plenty of genuine funny business as the initial comic friction between Tony and Don turns to true friendship.
The ugly truth of the times is always present—the film never shies away from the fact that it’s set in a place, and during a time, when racism was ragingly real. But Farrelly has a light touch that keeps an upbeat focus on his characters, even as the dark shadows of their situation remind us of scars that are still raw and bleeding today.
It’s based on a true story—and the real Tony went on to become a real actor who had roles as mobsters in Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco and HBO’s The Sopranos. The real Tony and the real Dr. Shirley, who really did become lifelong friends, both died within four months of each other in 2013.
A rousing crowd pleaser, Green Book shows us two characters who feel the distance between them—and their differences—warm and dissolve as they travel the highways. The sugar-sweet, homecoming-high ending might make some cynics sneer. But hey, at a time when it feels like bad news is the only news and people are more polarized and farther apart than ever, give me another bouncy ride with Dr. Don and Tony any day.
At one point, Tony shows Don with typical gusto how to dig into a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken while rolling down the road. You gotta get greasy, he says, not worry about the crumbs and just toss the bones out the window. “Whatever you do,” Tony says, “do 100 percent.”
Green Book does it for me, 100 percent, and I’m ready to roll again and feel the miles melt away with two of the most unforgettable characters from one of the best feel-good films of 2018.
In theaters Nov. 21, 2018