OK, class, who can explain what a Green Book is? For those who don’t know, it was a handbook for black motorists seeking “vacation without aggravation,” an indispensable travel guide listing friendly places to stay and tips for avoiding trouble in the Jim Crow South. As such, “Green Book” makes a clever title for a road movie unlike any other: the true story of the unlikely friendship between a black concert pianist and the New York City bouncer hired to chauffeur him through unfriendly territory.
Although inspirational on its surface, the film presents a pretty bleak picture of intolerance in 1962 America, when segregation and other openly racist policies would have made such a trip a dangerous prospect for a wealthy, well-educated black man, with or without a bruiser like Frank Anthony Vallelonga to watch his back. Featuring a pair of terrific performances by Viggo Mortensen as a goombah with a heart of gold and Mahershala Ali as multilingual composer-musician Don Shirley, the story may be unique, yet it goes pretty much exactly the way you might expect, with one huge twist: The credits read “Directed by Peter Farrelly” — which means this feel-good tour through American bigotry was made by one-half of the sibling duo responsible for “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
Turns out, that’s not such a bad thing, considering that the Farrelly brothers (whose gross-out sensibility ushered in the current era of R-rated comedies) showed that they were really a couple of sentimental softies somewhere around the time of “Shallow Hal.” Besides, if ever there was a project to challenge audiences’ assumptions about what certain people are capable of, this is it.
A play-it-safe crowd-pleaser in the family-friendly vein of “Hidden Figures” and “The Help” — movies that condemn racism as if the problem were already solved rather than still alive and well — “Green Book” may as well be “Driving Miss Daisy” in reverse, focusing on the inevitable fireworks when an elegant black man hires an ill-mannered guy from the Bronx to drive him around the South. It works on account of the chemistry between the two leads, both of whom are showing audiences a different side of themselves.
Enjoying his first starring role post-“Moonlight,” Ali may as well be playing the opposite of the empathetic drug dealer whose too-brief screen time in the first segment of Barry Jenkins’ film lifted the entire experience: Dr. Don Shirley is a regal black man whose cultured upbringing makes him an uptight Henry Higgins type to Mortensen’s Tony (who calls him “Doc” for short). Meanwhile, packing on 30 pounds to play a good old boy from the Bronx, Viggo gets a laugh every time he opens his mouth — always for one of two purposes: either to hustle whoever’s listening into giving him what he wants (hence his nickname, “Tony Lip”) or else to stuff food inside it (he seems to spend half the movie eating, whether it’s engaging in hot dog-eating contests at the local diner or alone in his hotel room, folding a pizza in half for a late-night snack).
We seldom get to see Mortensen in comic roles, but his goofy, sideways smile seems perfectly suited to this one, making it hard — even when he’s saying things that are nowhere near politically correct — to dislike the guy for long. Then again, it’s the responsibility of movies like this to remind audiences that attitudes were not always so enlightened when it comes to race relations in this country, and “Green Book” does a fine job of depicting the rampant disrespect that people of color were shown not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, where Shirley keeps an elaborately decorated apartment above Carnegie Hall (end-credits photos suggest the production designers actually downplayed his eclectic decorating style).
Costume designer Betsy Heimann outfits Ali in period-specific clothes that make it perfectly clear, from the moment he first appears on-screen, that Shirley is proud of his heritage and, for the remainder of the film, that he belongs to a much better class than Tony, who’s seen splattering a client’s blood across the front of his red Copacabana blazer in the opening scene. When the club closes for renovations, working-class Tony needs to find another gig fast, so long as it’s honest (if he’s not careful, the Sopranos-like local crime families will have him doing shady side jobs), which is how he finds himself interviewing for the role of Dr. Shirley’s driver on an eight-week concert tour — which will mean leaving wife Linda Cardellini home with the kids, while Shirley’s two fellow musicians, bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov, take their own car.
One of the running themes in “Green Book” — and perhaps the quality two guys from such different cultural backgrounds saw and respected in each other — is these men each observe unwritten codes of honesty and honor, and though they don’t always align, they come from a place of personal integrity. Of course, it’s a nice reversal that, as this uncouth white guy’s boss, Shirley has the power to insist that Tony adhere to his values, which means forcing him to return a “lucky rock” stolen from a roadside stand. Later, as their dynamic starts to loosen, they trade requests: Tony talks Shirley into trying some genuine Kentucky Fried Chicken, but Shirley gets the last laugh, insisting that Tony go back after tossing his empty soda cup out the window.
The movie would be plenty amusing if it were focused entirely on these two characters getting to know each another, opening one another’s eyes in the process. But given their route, it’s the audience’s eyes that are opened as “Green Book” shows just how inhuman Americans could be to their neighbors in 1962: At first, it’s just the indignity of not being allowed to eat, sleep, or relieve oneself in the same establishments, until one night in Kansas, when Shirley ventures into a bar alone and receives a beating for the simple fact of being black. Tony shows up just in time to rescue Shirley from the rednecks’ clutches, but it’s a clue to the abuse that lies ahead — not only from belligerent hicks but also from the police (they’re pulled over more than once) and, most insultingly, from the high-society whites who’ve engaged Shirley’s services.
Oh, but to hear Shirley play! Mortensen’s role may be the showier of the two, but Ali is a marvel to watch in his musical performances. The actor suggests Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America” crossed with the composure Adrien Brody brought to “The Pianist,” where performing serves as a way to communicate across cultural differences, and also to redirect the frustration of all the ways he has been mistreated. Constantly rewarding us with music, the soundtrack mixes the trio’s concert pieces with “black music” that Shirley doesn’t recognize — like Little Richard and Chubby Checker — culminating in an impromptu Christmas concert and the group-hug ending audiences want. “Green Book” can’t heal racism, but it’s a reminder that spending time with people different from ourselves, even if only in the dark on a movie screen, can be the key to combating prejudice.
Related: “Green Book” Is a Story Perfect for Today