By Elias Savada.
The exceptionally crisp performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are but two of the great things about Green Book, a very solid contender for Best Picture accolades, and much more. This heartwarming, soul searching inspired-by-a-true-story features well-educated virtuoso pianist Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American chauffeur-protector-confidant Tony Villelonga (Mortensen) as they road trip through the segregated Jim Crow South in 1962. Director Peter Farrelly has taken a decidedly providential turn from what America has expected from him. With his brother Bobby, the Farrelly Brothers have made us laugh about the silly things in life, especially There’s Something About Mary (1997) and Dumb and Dumber (1994), among their many blockbuster comedy hits. The new dramedy shows the subtler, sophisticated side of Farrelly – an audience pleaser which won the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, a prize that often foretells a nomination (at least) for the top prize given out by Academy Award voters. They do love their old-fashioned character-driven dramas. And this critic (who has seen the film twice and will gladly revisit it again after its release) believes it will be a popular hit for the masses and well-liked by numerous critics groups for statuettes of all shapes and sizes. More on that in a sec.
People won’t stop talking about the two actors who take center stage here. Mortensen, whom the masses will remember as Aragorn in the epic Michael Jackson trilogy The Lord of the Rings, has always been a personal favorite for the three films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method) he made for director David Cronenberg. More recently, he was earned a Oscar nomination in 2017 for his performance in Captain Fantastic. He hefts it up, literally, in Green Book, adding on physical weight prior to filming, and keeping it on during. One of the running gags is his character’s enormous appetite. At one point in the film he takes a large pizza, folds it in half, and stuffs it down his throat. Dedication to the craft (but not necessarily the craft services food truck) is evident as well from Mahershala Ali, a diligent television (The 4400, House of Cards) and film actor who won acclaim for his role as Juan in Moonlight a couple of years ago.
Now, mix these guys together and watch the magic work its wonders. Two very diverse peas in a pod of early 1960s New York City. Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip, is a blue-collar Bronx family man whose lack of a proper education is offset by his resourceful street smarts as a bouncer at the famed Copacabana nightclub. When the club shuts down for two months of renovations, Tony finds himself interviewing for work with a doctor who lives above Carnegie Hall. That would be Dr. Don Shirley, a world-renowned composer and pianist whose trio is part of the road trip that structures this film. Shirley’s a weird duck, a lonely, wealthy eccentric and incredibly gifted individual who makes an intriguing foil in this odd couple buddy movie. Mortensen and Ali are a perfect fit in the touching script by Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), actor-writer Brian Currie (look for his cameo as a Maryland State trooper late in the film), and Farrelly.
Layer on a strikingly authentic-looking production design (Tim Galvin) and pitch perfect score (Kris Bowers). Early on, Galvin worked miracles re-creating Dr. Shirley’s cluttered, bizarrely adorned throne room in his NYC studio apartment, and also gave familial warmth to Tony’s flat, always filled with extended family, gobs of Italian food, and a loving wife, excellently played by Linda Cardellini. What strikes me most is that the entire cast all seems so genuine.
The culture and racism of the time is an integral part of the film, and the expected tropes are on display, including Tony’s initial insensitivity when he tosses a pair of water glasses into a trash can after some black handymen drink from them. This is one of the many light set pieces that are emotionally stitched together in the ultimately feel-good film, with dabbles of social consciousness that does push a comparison toward a race-flipped Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
For the most part, Farrelly keeps it light with a slew of running gags, including how high society mispronounces Tony’s surname, or Dr. Shirley’s efforts to help Tony write better love letters home to his wife. There are some great sequences that will make you laugh (when Tony introduces his back seat passenger to mouth-watering Kentucky Fried Chicken) and cringe (generally revolving around racist policemen in Sundown towns, enforcing laws that banned non-whites within local jurisdictions after sunset). This brings me to the film’s title. Victor H. Greene published an annual directory (1936-1966) called The Negro Motorist Green Book that provided guidance to colored people travelling in America, especially the southern states where they served heaping piles of Southern Inhospitality. The book offered advice of food, lodging, and other services that helped its users avoid confrontation.
Let’s get back to the film’s year end Top Ten lists (it’s atop mine right now) and Universal Pictures’ Academy Award push for it. The studio is pushing Mortensen as the film’s sole “best actor,” with Ali sliding into the supporting-actor category. Ignorant folks were complaining two years ago when Ali was nominated (and won) the category for his 20-minute performance in Moonlight. For comparison, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for the 16 minutes (!) he appeared in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, Judi Dench won Supporting Actress for 8 minutes in Shakespeare in Love (1998), and, for those around in 1959, Hermione Baddeley earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination (she lost) for less than 2½ minutes in Room at the Top. I’m not sure anyone has researched the longest screen times the Academy of Arts and Sciences has offered nods in the supporting actor categories, but in Green Book Ali’s presence is felt in nearly the entire film save the first 15 minutes. According to The New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan, the choice of Oscar category was Ali’s decision.
In an era of ice-cold Rheingold beers and the infancy of the Civil Rights movement, the cozy warmth of Green Book stands as a reminder that men of such oddly different social and cultural backgrounds can find a common understanding to bridge society’s racial divide. Go see this film!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).