Film Review: Green Book

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are a memorable pair of mismatched traveling companions in this very entertaining Civil Rights Era road movie.
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Not since The Odd Couple has there been a movie odd couple quite as distinctive as Tony Vallelonga and Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book, the irresistible new road movie directed by (surprise!) Peter Farrelly of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary fame. There’s something almost inevitable about these real-life characters getting a feature showcase, so unusual, engaging and inspiring is their journey from antagonism to deep friendship.

Vallelonga, known to his friends as “Tony Lip,” was a former bouncer at New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub when he was hired by Dr. Shirley, an acclaimed jazz musician, to be his driver and de facto bodyguard during a tour he planned largely through the Deep South—a daring project for a black performer in 1962. (The film’s title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to hotels, motels, restaurants and other businesses that served black customers, or as Tony perhaps anachronistically notes, people “traveling while black.”) Tony is crude, loud, plain-spoken and kinda racist; Dr. Shirley is erudite, refined, exacting and kinda uptight. But Tony, temporarily unemployed, needs the good money Dr. Shirley is paying, and Dr. Shirley needs someone with Tony’s reputation for handling tense situations. It’s clear from the outset of their journey who’s boss, though it’s still difficult for Dr. Shirley to get the “quiet time” he needs in the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville the garrulous Tony commandeers.

The script, by Farrelly, Brian Currie and Vallelonga’s son Nick, is basically a series of small conflicts and compromises between the two. Tony develops an awed respect for Dr. Shirley’s musical genius and his eyes are opened to the indignities he suffers—sometimes even from his hosts—as they travel further south; Dr. Shirley overcomes his aversion to fried chicken and learns to appreciate Little Richard and Chubby Checker. They also see each other at their worst: Dr. Shirley’s lonely retreats to the bottle and other forms of release get him in big trouble more than once, and Tony’s hotheadedness lands them in jail.

A crucial element here is casting: The half-Danish Viggo Mortensen is startlingly persuasive as Bronx Italian-American Vallelonga, literally devouring his scenes with his physicality as a man with huge appetites. Known more for his rugged performances in the Lord of the Rings series and two violent David Cronenberg thrillers, Mortensen follows his Oscar-nominated turn in Captain Fantastic with another gem of a comic performance. And he has wondrous chemistry with Mahershala Ali, here so different from the compassionate drug dealer role that won him an Oscar in Moonlight. His Dr. Shirley is imperious and quite obviously brilliant, but Ali also reveals his pain, isolation and vulnerable need for love and friendship. And the marvelous music we’re hearing throughout may not be coming from Ali, but his fingering on the piano is damn convincing. (As Tony reminds us, “virtuoso” is Italian for “very good.”) Also making the most of her brief recurring appearances is Linda Cardellini, lending the film great warmth as Tony’s adoring wife back home, recipient of eloquent love letters dictated by Dr. Shirley in the spirit of Cyrano.

Kudos also go to production designer Tim Galvin for transforming so many Louisiana locations into a persuasive multi-state road trip and to the very handsome cinematography by Sean Porter (20th Century Women).

Green Book may take some criticism for being too much of a “feel-good” movie, but it doesn’t shy from the pervasive humiliations of black people in the Jim Crow South—it’s a constant once Tony and Don cross the Mason-Dixon line. And, as Dr. Shirley astutely observes, if not for their trip together, would he have been treated any differently in a Bronx bar by Tony and his friends? That final thought makes Green Book a timely arrival even in 2018.