The unlikely true-life friendship between an African-American concert pianist and an Italian nightclub bouncer is the inspiration (and that’s a key distinction) for Peter Farrelly’s comedy-drama “Green Book”. The film’s name comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual travel guide for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. It listed restaurants and lodging that allowed black visitors in segregated America.
The story takes place in the 1960s and opens in New York City. Bouncer and general tough guy Tony Lip Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) has to find work while his boss’ nightclub is shut down for renovations. He is hired to be both driver and bodyguard for Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an immensely talented African-American concert pianist who is about to embark on an eight-week concert tour starting in the Midwest before heading through the Deep South.
“Green Book” is all about the central relationship between these two polar opposites. Don is an educated man of art and culture. Tony is streetwise and rough around the edges. It sets the table for some really good and often funny interactions. Especially when Tony’s meat-headed simple speak clashes with Don’s snobbish penchant for proper speech and etiquette.
As the road trip takes them further south both men run face-first into some harsh realities that adds a new layer to their relationship. The slightly discreet prejudices of the North gives way to the more pronounced racism of southern segregation. Some of the encounters lean a little too heavily on backwoods stereotypes but others are more effective. Take Don’s hosts who see him as offering up a good slice of culture yet he’s not good enough to use the white folks bathroom. But it’s in the more subtle moments where the racial injustice is the most profound. For Don this is real life. For Tony its eye-opening.
The biggest strength lies in the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. Without it the entire movie would fall apart. There are moments where you can sense the story wearing a little thin and other times where it ventures into some peculiar waters only never to return to them. But even then the two stars carry the load, Mortensen with cagey finesse and Ali with a captivating elegance. Toss in some fantastic supporting work from Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores. It’s a small role but full of warmth in scenes otherwise full of routine Italian caricatures.
There have been several criticisms hurled at “Green Book”, many of which I can’t quite get behind. Accusations that the film has a rose-colored view of racism either miss or interpret differently the quieter portrayals of discrimination I found most effective. Other gripes that the story sometimes forces Don Shirley to take a backseat to Tony (pun absolutely intended) seem to overlook that it’s told from the perspective of Tony’s son who co-wrote the script.
Ultimately “Green Book” may not dig as deep into racial injustice as some would like and it may not offer a cure for the modern day remnants of hate. It may be too charming and too humorous for those looking for an edge. But it does push a powerful message and does so through some infectiously strong performances. Turns out they’re enough to drive us through even when the story sputters.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS