The scene where Tony Lip meets Dr. Don Shirley in the mostly easygoing Green Book is telling in more ways than one. A sequence credited as “based on a real friendship,” it is the meeting between a prospective employee and employer, an Italian-American bruiser named Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and the immaculately measured Jazz musician, Don (Mahershala Ali), who lives atop a veritable castle in the sky—or at least in a luxury apartment above Carnegie Hall. His home reflects culture and prestige, yet other than a single manservant, it is empty, and not so much a part of the New York elite it towers above as it is an object hidden away from a distance. Like a fine piece of art, it can be admired without being touched.
Yet even with those regal qualifications, Mortensen’s usually affable working class family man still feels entitled enough to talk down to the evidently wealthy black musician. He’s interested in being Shirley’s white driver (read: bodyguard) through a concert tour in the segregated South circa 1962, but he doesn’t feel obligated to show “Doc” the same reverence he might some of those peculiar slick suits at the club who are in “construction.” It is the agonizing power dynamic between a respected black man in America and a still privileged white man who might nod but not smile. At first, that is.
The surprising amount of sophistication with which director Peter Farrelly and his co-screenwriters Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie treat this moment, and its cultural values, belies the intrinsic value of what could have just been another film about American racism told from the perspective of naïve white entitlement. Green Book, by contrast, has the perspective to acknowledge this on its path of crafting a surefire crowd-pleaser. It’s likewise the type of awareness to make this feel-goodness come from a place that’s actually good in its affectation, even if it skirts some of the more biting questions raised by an odd couple pairing for a road trip through a land of hate.
Set just before the 1962 holiday season, Green Book is upfront about the simplicity of its premise. Ali’s reserved and even gilded composer reluctantly hires a white driver to fix any inevitable problems with being a black man in the South, as Don Shirley wants to bring some of his musical stylings to the land of Dixie, whether locals want it or not. And, surprisingly, they do when he’s exuding brilliance on the piano, but not so much when he wants to use the same restroom. Tony, meanwhile, is street-smart muscle from way Uptown who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, though he’s looking for only legitimate work to support his family after his club is shutdown. The film ensures that its main protagonist is a genuinely good-hearted guy—he’ll even eat two dozen hot dogs in a contest to win $50 for his kids—but even between his love for the wife (Linda Candellini) and his romance for every type of greasy food imaginable, he still doesn’t like having black workmen fix his sink, never mind taking orders from one with a doctorate sitting in his backseat.
But on the road, both men learn to let down their barriers, if for no other reason than Tony can never be quiet. Slowly, the bemused Shirley instructs Tony how to write a love letter to his wife, and Tony teaches Shirley the joys of pop music and fried chicken, even as he obliviously wonders aloud why Doc didn’t appreciate the culture of “your people.”
Green Book feels out of the past in a number of ways beyond its Kennedy-era setting. Designed to be an old school light comedy-drama about characterization and the ugliness of blatant racism, it’s the type of old-fashioned star vehicle that might’ve been made in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Indeed, comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy will be almost unavoidable. Yet at its best, this update of formula improves in more ways than just flipping the coded racial stereotypes divided between the front and back seat.
Mortensen and Ali offer something better than star power—they exude the qualities of genuine character actor transformations. Tony Lip is certainly a louder part that relies on mugging as a prerequisite when compared to much of Mortensen’s recent minimalist turns, however he builds the film’s protagonist with a real dawning self-realization, and the effect is not unlike the feature-length process of watching a lightbulb turn on. His chemistry also sparks well with Ali, who gets the much better role. All steely decorum and manners, Don Shirley is a man who hails from a Manhattan tower with ivory lying around, but it is a defense mechanism. He may face greater obstacles in the Deep South, but he’s aware that his cultured celebrity and artistry barely elevates him in the gaze of sympathetic white eyes to the level of “a good one.” That indignity, along with the limits of musical avenues even in New York, imbues a wounded pride always underneath.
Farrelly tracks the evolution of their friendship with all the twists and turns of a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, complete with a mad dash to be home in time for Christmas, but both performances, and especially Ali, allow the film to detour into something human and inherently comforting to mainstream (and white) audiences.
Of the recent audience-friendly films on culture clash, Green Book falls closer to the astuteness of Hidden Figures, with a better screenplay to boot in Green Book, than it does the obliviousness of The Help. However, at the end of the day, the film is told entirely from Tony’s perspective and is about Tony’s slow burn toward the mid-20th century equivalent of Wokeness. It’s effective, but it never delves deep enough into Don’s point-of-view. Admittedly, the film was co-written by the real Tony Lip’s son and is based on family history from that vantage, but the film is most interesting when glimpsing into the indignities that Don faces from more than just the most sneering of racist Louisiana cops. Here is an African American with an extraordinary experience, but too much of it is glimpsed only through a rearview mirror.
Nevertheless, the film aptly and disarmingly moves at the gentle pace of a curve in the road. There are the expected potholes, like a white country club that will let their guest of honor play a Steinway piano but not eat dinner in their restaurant, but the film, like Tony Lip’s car, is built to endure. And it does better than that. This is a movie that thrives, all the while revealing its own unexpected enlightenment: Peter Farrelly, the co-director of Dumb and Dumber, has made one of the most enjoyable awards-friendly films of the year.
Green Book is now playing wide. This review was first published on Nov. 15.