Green Book is almost a contradiction in terms, a feel-good buddy comedy-drama featuring an elegant black musician and his white driver on tour in the pre-integration South of 1962. Arriving in the wake of any number of edgy cinematic takes on racial issues, this Universal release represents a very middle-of-the-road liberal approach to a story that pretty much could have been told anytime since the 1960s. Distinctive and amusing turns by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali make Peter Farrelly’s first solo feature outing a lively and likable diversion.
Since collaborating on his last feature in tandem with his brother Bobby, Dumb and Dumber To, in 2014, Farrelly directed a TV movie, Cuckoo, in 2015 and was behind the camera on all 10 episodes of the 2017 television series Loudermilk.
An enjoyable odd couple in the Jim Crow South.
The script by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and the director was inspired by an actual tour made by the gifted, multi-faceted musician Don Shirley (Ali). As the film shows, the Jamaican-born Shirley could superbly play any kind of music, from classical to jazz; spoke numerous languages (including Russian); and carried himself as an aristocrat who placed great stock in propriety and decorum.
However, for a swing that would start in the North but make most of its stops south of the Mason-Dixon line, Shirley realizes he needs a white driver to run interference if necessary. He finds him in Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer and enforcer who could have fathered almost any of the characters on The Sopranos.
A dees-n-dohs kinda guy first seen working at the Copacabana and never averse to a little rough stuff, Tony has a short fuse, a healthy-unhealthy appetite (he wins $50 by eating 26 hot dogs in a contest), a nice wife (Linda Cardellini) and a couple of young boys. For this latest physically transformative part, Mortensen has packed on quite a few pounds, adopted a new gait and a perfect Italian-American accent and beautifully sunk himself into the role of a capable, don’t-mess-with-me wise guy. He really zings this performance.
The role of Shirley requires a similar broad jump for Ali, but in a very different direction. In an apartment above Carnegie Hall, Shirley lives in highly decorated splendor and aristocratically interviews Tony from a throne while wearing a white robe and gold jewelry. This hardly looks like a match made in heaven (Tony certainly doesn’t think so), but Shirley insists that this self-assured, good-natured tough guy is exactly who he needs to keep him safe down South.
The title refers to Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, published annually from 1936-1966 as a guide for black travelers as to where they could stay, eat and receive services during the perilous days of Jim Crow and sundown laws.
As they head out of New York in a luxurious turquoise Cadillac (the two other members of the pianist’s trio drive separately), Shirley maintains a stoical hauteur as he aristocratically occupies in the back seat and, ironically, makes it clear that Tony needs to know his place. Farrelly has fun with their highly contrasting banter and in breaking down the barriers between the two, and by the time they hit Pittsburgh, Tony enthuses that his boss “plays like Liberace but better.” In general, what Shirley’s trio plays here could be described as very accomplished polite jazz.
Farrelly typically low-balls some of the humor, such as when Tony stops at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in — where better? — Kentucky and forces his haughty boss to try it (he likes it, he actually likes it). But it’s in that same state that “For Colored Only” signs start appearing and the tension starts seeping into every moment of the tour. “From now on, you don’t go nowhere without me,” Tony insists to his boss.
Moments after being applauded and congratulated for his lovely performances before all-white audiences, the impeccably accoutered and mannered Shirley is forced to stay in mostly forlorn motels and flop houses. There’s a short scene at a YMCA in which Tony bribes a cop to let Shirley go after what looks to have been a gay pickup, but no further mention is made of this side of the musician’s life.
The ironies and injustices mount with depressing regularity the longer the tour continues in the South, notably an encounter with racist police in Mississippi in which Shirley’s skin is saved due only to an appeal to a very high level indeed. There’s also a letting-off-steam interlude when the pair goes to a black honky-tonk and Shirley gets down musically for the first time.
The dynamic of these objectively mismatched men is almost like that of The Odd Couple, as the formal, uptight man is gradually loosened up by the more uncouth, working-class stiff, as understanding and mutual benefit ensues. As such, it’s a familiar and conservative creative dynamic that seems pretty old-fashioned at this moment in time, but the human interchange, enlivened as it is by two fine actors in responsive form, make it go down easily and enjoyably.
An initial musical sequence features a long uninterrupted look at Shirley playing some Chopin at the piano, and Ali’s fingering and exactitude in this performance is extremely impressive. Many will be curious as to whether this is real or not.
Production companies: Participant Media, DreamWorks Pictures
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, P.J. Byrne, Montel Miller
Director: Peter Farrelly
Screenwriters: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Producers: Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Octavia Spencer, Kwame L. Parker, John Sloss, Steven Farneth
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Production designer: Tim Galvin
Costume designer: Betsy Heiman
Editor: Patrick J. Don Vito
Music: Kris Bowers
Casting: Rick Montgomery
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
Rated PG-13, 130 minutes