The guy has won an Oscar, yet somehow I feel we still don’t appreciate Mahershala Ali as much as we should.
“Green Book” is the true story of bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who in 1962 drove classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) around the Deep South during a concert tour. Peter Farrelly directs and co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Vallelonga’s son, Nick. The film gets its title from “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for African-American roadtrippers written by Victor Hugo Green.
Sometimes central performances alone can carry a film, and that is the case here. Viggo Mortensen (a two-time Oscar nominee, best known for his role in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is a likable Italian-American, brushing shoulders with mob-types and is, as he self-proclaims, a world-class BS artist. His worldview is limited, only knowing his Bronx way of life, often falling victim to his unintentional passive racism (“your people love the fried chicken!” he proclaims to Shirley). The real-life Vallelonga, known professionally as Tony Lip, actually eventually transitioned into acting after meeting director Francis Ford Coppola at the Copacabana Nightclub, leading to his roles in “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and as boss Carmine Lupertazzi in “The Sopranos,” and Mortenson certainly plays him as a man who you want to befriend yet wouldn’t dare cross.
As pianist Don Shirley, Ali is often quiet and composed, offering intelligent quips at the expense of Tony’s “less refined” actions. Ali is entertaining at first, but as the film goes on we begin to see behind the wall he has built, having to put on a smile while performing for the very people who wouldn’t dare share a bathroom or restaurant table with him. He has his eventual and inevitable emotional explosion (as seen in the trailer), but it isn’t any less impactful just because we see it coming.
And that can be said about the film as a whole; we’ve seen all this before, yet we don’t care. The performances (including the often underused Linda Cardellini in the lovely wife role) are so compulsively watchable and the script is light and full of nice dialogue, that the flaws are more than easy to forgive.
Where some people may find fault in a crowd-pleasing film like this is just that, the film may play it “too safe” sometimes. We get glimpses of darker topics, like how in the 1960s many blacks were still working on plantations and a look into Shirley’s personal demons, but they are often one-and-done sequences. There are also only two n-bombs and a few other racist titles, which may seem unrealistic for the time and a cop-out by Farrelly. However I think it is actually a compliment to the film, as it gets all the hatred and bigotry of patches of the Deep South in the 1960s across without needing to be in-your-face, and doesn’t make the relatively light tone of the film ever come to a screeching halt.
Who would have thought the writer-director of gross out comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” could successfully handle a dramedy about race-relations in the 1960s with such nuance? I’ve said before that subtle direction can be hit-or-miss, sometimes a story doesn’t lend itself to a removed approach, but just like with Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born,” Peter Farrelly’s deft direction is here was the perfect choice.
“Green Book” is a great film with great performances, and shows that no matter how divided or angry the world may seem today, we have made incredible strides in even the past 40 years and that, at the end of the day, we are all in this life together and share common desires and values. Ali and Mortenson will hopefully get attention come award season, Farrelly should get love for his script, and I pray this film finds an audience, because it really is one of the best of 2018.
Critic’s grade: A.