Bolstered by two knock-out performances, Green Book may just be the crowd pleaser of the holiday season. Directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, of the Farrelly Brothers and their gross-out comedies of the 1990s and early 2000s), the film recounts the unlikely friendship of a musician and bouncer, an odd couple thrown together when one hires the other to be his driver and personal security for a concert tour through the Jim Crow South. At turns poignant, heartwarming and funny, you’ll be able to take your petulant teen, your fussy in-laws and everyone in between to this simple yet powerful story of resilience, growth and friendship.
The film’s tagline, “based on a true friendship,” gives a nod to the two very real men who went on that road trip in 1962, the African American jazz / classical musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar last year Moonlight) and the Italian American bouncer, driver and all-around world-class bullshitter Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, twice nominated for an Oscar himself, for Captain Fantastic and Eastern Promises). With an eight-week tour planned through the midwest and deep south, Shirley is well aware he won’t be able to travel from venue to venue as easily as the other two (white) musicians in his trio. Facing discrimination and worse, he must rely on The Green Book, a guide listing the motels, restaurants and service stations available to African Americans, and Vallelonga’s fast-thinking, tough-guy persona to see him safely from New York City to Birmingham and back.
There are certainly aspects of Green Book that could be seen as trite or even cliché, and the cynics of the world will no doubt delight in finding them. But resist the urge to give in to such a harsh perspective! Instead, relish in the grandeur of Ali’s performance as the dignified Dr. Shirley and the charm of Mortensen’s rough-around-the-edges Tony. Their on-screen chemistry is as perfectly pitched as any romantic duo or superhero pairing, and it makes taking this two-hour road trip with them an absolute delight.
Tony’s a family man working (and hustling) at the Copacabana, earning a mostly-honest living to support his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their two sons. When the Copa closes for remodeling right around Thanksgiving, Tony has to find a new job, and fast. To his credit, he declines the various offers from the more…enterprising?…Italian businessmen in town. But he’s also none too interested in Shirley’s offer to be chauffeur and butler, pressing pants and arranging meals and the like for two months through the lower half of the U.S. He’s convinced when Shirley agrees to raise the weekly pay; Dolores greenlights the arrangement when Shirley calls her directly to make sure it won’t be an undue burden to take Tony away from his family for so long. Class act, that Dr. Shirley.
The two set out on their road trip, and it’s as they criss-cross the country that the film finds its real depth, confronting the racism and classism of 1960s America. Sought after as he is, Dr. Shirley is invited to perform in country clubs and private mansions that under any other circumstances he wouldn’t be allowed to enter. The inequality is on ugly display time and time again, from the rathole motels where Shirley is forced to stay to the jackasses he encounters in bars who let him know exactly how they feel about him being there. None of this is a surprise, per se, but it’s all quite enlightening to Tony, who’s never been confronted with such realities in his insulated Italian neighborhood in the Bronx.
The safest place for the duo seems to be on the road, and their friendship comes into its own as the miles add up. Tony introduces the buttoned-up and proper Shirley to James Brown, Aretha Franklin and fried chicken; Shirley adds a bit of romantic poetry to the letters Tony sends home to Dolores. Watching Ali and Mortensen interact is a pleasure; each actor is at the top of their craft, and they’ve clearly put a lot of effort into embodying the men they’re portraying. Coupled with a story that’s a heartfelt reminder of the power of embracing our differences (including a Capra-esque ending that’ll hit everyone in the feels), it all adds up to a wonderful way to spend some family time this holiday season.
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