‘Green Book’ Gets the Green Light
By Mark Meszoros
It’s easy to see why “Green Book” -- inspired by the real friendship between a sophisticated Jamaican-born concert pianist and a rough-around-the-edges Italian-American from the Bronx that developed during a tour of the Deep South in the early 1960s -- won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
This film is a delight.
Bolstered by excellent performances by Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) as musician Dr. Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”) as his tough-guy driver Frank Anthony Vallelonga -- aka “Tony Lip” -- “Green Book” consistently entertains during a runtime of slightly more than two hours that feels like half that.
And considering that the central conflict of the film stems from the racism of America and, especially, the South at the time, it’s surprising it is directed by Peter Farrelly, half of the brother filmmaking tandem responsible for such comedies as “Something About Mary,” “Kingpin” and “Dumb and Dumber.” However, that helps to explain why “Green Book” -- almost but not quite to a fault -- prioritizes laughs over drama.
You know what? It’s fine. We certainly can use a movie like this right now.
“Green Book” begins in New York, where Tony works at a prominent jazz club. On the night we meet him, he runs a little hustle on a wealthy patron and breaks up a fight over a woman, going so far as to repeatedly punch the mob-connected guy he tosses into the street. When the club closes for remodeling, he’s out of a job for a few months and isn’t exactly sitting on a pile of cash.
Meanwhile, Don is about to embark on a tour that, after playing the Midwest, will take a “hard turn” into the South. He interviews Tony for the driver gig, telling him he needs someone who can defuse potentially problematic situations -- that’s no problem for Tony, who says he has experience in “public relations” -- but who also will handle tasks that include laundering his clothes and shining his shoes.
“Good luck, Doc,” a disbelieving Tony says, as he leaves the musician’s elaborately furnished apartment above famed Carnegie Hall.
Tony’s wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini, “The Founder,” “Bloodline”), isn’t surprised he turned down the gig.
“He’s colored? You wouldn’t last a week with him,” she tells Tony, Dolores having not long ago rescued two drinking glasses from the garbage Tony had tossed after two black plumbers had used them in the family kitchen.
“For the right money, I would,” he counters.
Well, Don soon calls, asking to speak to Dolores. He asks if she can be without her husband for two months and says he agrees to terms Tony had suggested during the interview, including a higher salary than originally was offered -- and no shoe-shining.
Soon, they’re off, with Tony being paid half his salary in advance, with the rest to come after Don has made it to every show of the tour, culminating two days from Christmas in Birmingham, Ala.
While he won’t clean his clothes, Tony agrees to handle two regular tasks: make sure that at each venue there is a Steinway piano, per Don’s contract, and a bottle of Cutty Sark waiting for him in his room each night.
Speaking of accommodations for Don, Tony is given a copy of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual guidebook of the time with a list of establishments that would allow blacks to spend a night, forcing him to a nearby establishments instead of at the same motel as the person he’s charged with protecting. It’s not as if Tony doesn’t have a racist bone in his body -- he’s highly distrustful of a German musician in Shirley’s trio, for further evidence -- but he is increasingly bewildered and angered by how blacks are treated below the Mason-Dixon Line.
At its heart, “Green Book” is a buddy movie and a road movie, Don and Tony spending much time in the car, the black man in the back seat, much to the confusion of many who see it.
As their often tension-filled relationship evolves, Don helps Tony vastly improve in the art of writing letters to his wife -- these are some of the movie’s most charming scenes -- and Tony tries to introduce Don to things he sees as part of black culture, from fried chicken to popular black musicians like Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin.
“I mean, come on, Doc,” says an exasperated Tony as they listen to the radio. “These are your people!”
In one of his early letters to Dolores, Tony tells her of Don’s amazing talent at the piano: “He don’t play like a colored guy. He plays like Liberace -- only better!”
As you’ll come to discover, if you weren’t tipped off by the Scotch requirement, Don is a bit of a tortured soul and a fascinatingly complex character -- one area where you wish “Green Book” -- written by Farrelly, Brian Currie and Vallelonga’s oldest son, Nick Vallelonga -- went at least a little deeper.
The moments, both comedic and dramatic, in the film are handled exquisitely by Mortensen, who’s carrying around enough weight that you don’t even recognize him as the man who portrayed Aragorn in the “Lord of the Rings” films of the early 2000s, and Academy Award winner Ali. It’s not hard to envision Oscar nods for one or both.
And, shockingly enough, the same can be said for Farrelly, who has delivered one of the year’s best films to date. It feels a bit like this year’s “Hidden Figures,” a 2016 best-picture candidate and crowd-pleaser about the space race that also dealt with the racism of the ’60s -- and that featured Ali in a supporting role.
It’s another busy holiday season, but put “Green Book” in your datebook. It is not to be missed.