4.5 out of 5 stars.
Sometimes the deepest friendships form from the most unlikely duos. Such is the basis of “Green Book,” a film directed by Peter Farrelly and based on the real relationship that developed between rough and tumble Italian bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and refined black musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Don hires Tony to be his driver and bodyguard on an eight week tour of the Deep South during the early 1960s, providing a basis for racial commentary that doesn’t always hit home, but still results in a powerful and warm story of a friendship that crosses barriers, and is one of the best movies of the year.
One of the primary reasons why “Green Book” works so well is that it is a stunning showcase for its actors. Both Ali and Mortensen are at the top of their game here. Mortensen may get the most scenary to chew on– his Tony eats a ton, is messy and profane, and is tough but not especially intelligent– but Ali is nicely understated, and his music scenes (Don is a pianist) are magical to behold. Don embarks on this tour knowing that there will be trouble for him; as they venture out of the midwest and further south, Don is placed into increasingly unjust and scary situations. This civil rights drama may be fairly by the book on the subject of race, but Don is interesting because in a way he exists in both worlds. He is educated, well-dressed, talented, and a good speaker– the exact opposite of Tony, but also the opposite of many African Americans at the time. But he is still black, and while these wealthy white people invite him to perform at their establishments, he isn’t treated with the same respect; he can’t use their bathrooms, or even eat in the restaurants he is performing in. He also can’t stay in the nicest places while they are on the road. The title of the film refers to a handbook for black motorists at the time, listing the hotels in the south where they are welcome to stay, a copy of which Tony is given at the beginning of their trip. As you can probably imagine, they aren’t the nicest of places. Ultimately, Tony, who is always ready to meet opposition with violence, and Don, who believes in upholding dignity above all else, have a lot to learn from each other by the conclusion of their journey. Mortensen and Ali are well-matched here, completely selling their burgeoning friendship to the audience.
But “Green Book” is actually pretty light on heavier drama. In fact, it’s really funny, thanks to some witty dialogue and humorous exchanges between Tony and Don. It is so fun to watch, but at times it does undermine some scenes where the film’s message could have been more powerful. There are a few other scenes that detract from this as well that weren’t as necessary to the story, like a gang that keeps trying to recruit Tony to do some work for them. But while the focus is on Tony and Don for much of the film, there are some worthy supporting characters as well, particularly Tony’s wife Dolores, played by Linda Cardellini.
“Green Book” is a great-looking movie too, with a lot of nostalgia-packed visuals and great music. Farrelly constantly makes sure the distinction between Don and Tony’s backgrounds and ways of life are evident in the way he shoots them and presents them in their environment; Don, for instance, is almost swallowed in his swanky yet cold apartment above Carnegie Hall, while Tony is forced to cram into one bedroom with his wife and two kids. And while it may be predictable, “Green Book” is so warm and endearing that it does drive home a relevant message of acceptance between its two characters, one that hopefully most people will carry with them out of the theater.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.