FILM REVIEW – GREEN BOOK. With Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly. Directed by Peter Farrelly. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. 130 minutes.
If someone told you that Peter Farrelly, the director of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber,” had made a sensitive movie dealing with the issues of race and class in the South in the 1960s, you would be right to scoff. It has been a long time since Farrelly’s films have garnered anything but scathing reviews and diminishing box office. That’s about to change.
The movie is based on the true-life story of Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained pianist and recording artist, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who is laid off from his job as a bouncer when the nightclub where he works is being remodeled. The bouncer is hired to drive the musician on a concert tour, and since he has been reduced to seeing who can eat more hot dogs to pick up money on a bet, he ends up taking the job.
The wrinkle is that Shirley is African-American, well-heeled (he lives in an apartment over Carnegie Hall), and somewhat of an introvert. Vallelonga, who prefers to be called by his nickname, is a working class Italian-American who shares many of the prejudices of his time and place. When his wife offers a glass of water to a black plumber fixing her sink, Vallelonga throws the glass away.
The story follows them through the South where they experience the societal racism that was such an ingrained way of life that the titular volume provided listings and ads at the time for those businesses willing to cater to “Negroes.” Over the course of the story the two men slowly break down the barriers between them. Race is a big part of it, of course. It’s one thing to use casual slurs with his family, but when Villalonga sees the unending humiliation of Shirley – at one point welcomed to perform in a Southern mansion but told he couldn’t use the bathroom and would have to go to the outhouse instead – he begins to see the world differently. Likewise, Shirley discovers that the man he assumed was an ignorant lout could, with some guidance, prove to have unexpected depths. Shirley starts helping Vallelonga compose letters to his wife that are so romantic that her girlfriends demand to know why their husbands can’t express themselves the same way.
There are moments of comedy and moments of drama, with some surprises as the two men let down their guard. Ali and Mortensen are the oddest of odd couples as Shirley and Vallelonga, and the two men manage to expose the flaws and the admirable qualities of the real-life people who would become lifelong friends as a result of their road trip. In a year of some great performances, here are two more must-sees.
“Green Book” is about two men from very different worlds and experiences who discover their common humanity. As such, it is not merely a “feel good” movie. It is a story that speaks to us at time when the divisions in this country might seem insurmountable. The film suggests they don’t have to be.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.