By: Joshua Rothkopf
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are masterful in this rousing period piece, alternating belly laughs with an unflinching view of a nation at war with itself.
Call this actors’ duet sentimental and simplistic at your own peril. Green Book may well move you, possibly to tears, at the thought of real social change and kindness (at a time when we need it badly). Something of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, it charts a road trip into racism shared by two well-worn stereotypes, characters that, almost surprisingly, come from real life—a true tale that happened in 1962. “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (a pizza-chomping Viggo Mortensen) is a brutal NYC club bouncer prone to howyadoins. On the hunt for work, he gets an unlikely gig at the invitation of Don Shirley (cryptic Mahershala Ali, superb), a finicky black jazz pianist who requires a tough driver to escort him on a tour of the Deep South. Tony’s no bleeding heart, but for the right price, he’s willing to swallow his pride.
The mouth, however, can’t be closed: Tony cuts loose with deliriously rude arias about Little Richard, fried chicken and the proper way to write a love letter, and both actors shade their roles with unexpected nuance and a generosity of spirit. They widen the already spacious Cadillac into a stage for some of the most relaxed banter of the year. If you recall the movies that Green Book’s director Peter Farrelly made with his brother Bobby (There’s Something About Mary, the Dumb and Dumber saga), you won’t be surprised by the crassness or the unexpected heart, both Farrelly trademarks. The new film creates a beautiful friction eased by conversation—somewhat calculated, yes, but near-heroic in our moment when civil discourse seems less likely than an infinity war.
Green Book, so titled for the guidebook printed for “Negro motorists” hoping to avoid trouble in a region where lynchings weren’t a distant memory, is a much classier affair than any of Farrelly’s prior comedies. When it gets around to its dark side—as well as a Mississippi Burning earnestness—you’ll want to protectively hug its two leads. Concerts will be played and bigotry confronted, yet the most sophisticated aspect here are a pair of transformations so quiet, you might miss them. Don, the closeted artist, stymied in his classical aspirations and a joke to himself, knows he must go on Christmas Eve to the one person who sees him for who he is. And Tony, sitting at his kitchen table, can no longer tolerate any hurtful talk. The film believes in a better us, even if we’ve done our best to drive it away.