Green Book Film Review
Watertown native, Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony Lip (Frank Anthony Vallelonga) in Green Book. A film Inspired by the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, a brilliant black pianist who goes on a concert tour through the Midwest and the Deep South in 1962. 1962 is before the civil rights legislation when Jim Crow laws kept the south severely segregated. Shirley (played by Oscar Winner Mahershala Ali) has three doctorates, and lives in an opulent, fabulous apartment above Carnegie Hall. Tony Lip is an Italian, Bronx native, who is a bouncer for the famed Copacabana night club. Tony is rough around the edges, and isn’t afraid to get dirty, or throw a punch to get a job done. When Tony is laid off because the nightclub is being remodeled, he doesn’t have a lot of legal choices to pick up extra cash, excepting an occasional hot dog eating contest. Tony is at the top of a short list of recommended candidates and after some negotiating, Shirley hires Tony to be his driver/bodyguard/handler for the 8 week road tour.
It is clear from the beginning that these two men have little in common, and much humor is derived from this odd couple on the road together set-up. As Shirley attempts to dignify Tony and improve his profane laden vocabulary, Tony attempts to make the regal Dr. Shirley less rigid, and less adhered to rules and laws, especially when a job needs to get done. What bonds the two men, is what bonds us all; humanity and a strong desire to fight for what they believe in. Like all good friendships there is tension and rivalry, but also loyalty, confidence and encouragement. Both men are influenced by each other and when Shirley finally decides to break with dignity protocol, to become properly angered over injustice; Tony is proud of him and Shirley acknowledges Tony’s influence.
Director Peter Farrelly, noted for his raunchy R-rated comedies, such as Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary, co-wrote the script with Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s real life son) and Bryan Hayes Currie. Farrelly directs with an easy, light hand and never lets the racially charged subject matter bog the film down in didactics or weighty importance. Farrelly’s comedic chops and his way with actors shine, in many scenes between the two men, both delivering incredible performances here. Farrelly has made the wise choice of focusing on the friendship of the men and their experience together on the trip instead of the racial strife of the period. Racism and the bleak situation in the south for people of color in the 1960’s has been tackled often in film and it would be impossible to tell any story in the south during this time period while skirting the issue. Green Book doesn’t skirt the issue and it almost seems fresh here and certainly more palpable because it’s a natural part of the landscape, not the entire focus. There is often humor to ease the darkness. The film isn’t irresponsible in its depiction of racism; on the contrary, it is handled deftly. The medicine goes down with a bit of sugar, but the medicine does go down.
Mortensen who has been twice nominated for an Oscar before, is likely to receive a third one here. Always eschewing the idea of being a movie star, or even a leading man, he is in fact a great character actor. He has played a Russian (Eastern Promises, 2007), a Spaniard (Captain Alitriste: The Spanish Musketeer) and even Sigmund Freud (A Dangerous Method – 2011 – GG nomination). His Tony is more than just accent and weight gain, it is an internal transformation as well. Affable, worldly, charming, crass, but always loyal, Tony is the friend who might embarrass you occasionally, but is so worth the work, because he has your back. He may talk with his hands and eat an entire folded pizza, but Tony is always real, thanks to Mortensen. Ali, as Shirley, is also fantastic. He brings his singular grace and magnetic presence that won him an Oscar for Moonlight playing a completely different character, culturally and social-economically. Underneath, there is always dignity and a moral compass. The entire cast, many of them actors you don’t recognize by name, but by their great faces, is excellent.
Green Book is enormously entertaining and satisfying. It’s a giant crowd-pleaser with a 94% audience score on rotten tomatoes and an 8.3 rating on IMDB. If this movie doesn’t earn gazillions at the Box Office, someone in the distributor’s marketing department should be fired. It’s like a great home cooked meal, not terribly complex, sophisticated or complicated, but nothing else will beat it.