In GREEN BOOK, an unlikely pair bonds while one chauffeurs the other below the Mason-Dixon line in the 1960s. The passenger is a black musician traveling from New York to play gigs in the South. His driver is a dyed-in-the-wool New York working man. They’re a true odd couple, educated and urbane on one side, broad and uncouth on the other. Naturally, we expect they’ll have a fast friendship by the end of the movie.
Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) plays the musician, classically trained jazz pianist Don Shirley. The character is a real figure, and GREEN BOOK is based on his true story. His driver is Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga, a nightclub bouncer played by Viggo Mortensen (THE LORD OF THE RINGS).
It’s easy to look at GREEN BOOK as the DRIVING MISS DAISY of today. It’s got a terrific actor pair, for one. And there’s the fact that one character spends the movie driving the other. The story is very firmly rooted in racism, and the different roles allowed to each man in society. While all the external pressures seen and implied in GREEN BOOK create the film’s drama, the real beauty is the interplay between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.
The Odd Couple
Playing a musician, especially a real person who was a masterful performer, is no easy task. (Just ask the actors in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.) Ali makes us believe almost instantly that his Don Shirley is the real deal. He seems to actually live in his music when performing. Ali creates his character with endless nuance. Even when the material goes pretty broad — there’s an extended riff with Tony teaching Don about the pleasures of fried chicken — Ali finds ways to show us how resentment and good nature collide just beneath the surface of Shirley’s personality.
We’ve seen Viggo Mortensen disappear into roles many times before. Here he puts on a bit of weight and adopts just the right accent to play the Italian-American Tony. He develops the character as a man with a tempered but genial nature. He’s curiosity. And all that is true even as his experience is defined by the racism that was embedded in much of American life at the time.
As good as the two are individually, together they’re just right for GREEN BOOK. The film deals with serious material, but the ways in which Ali and Mortensen connect with one another is like hanging out with two people who just seem to be friends on an innate level. Their work together turns the film into a buddy comedy of sorts. Ali shows Don Shirley to be almost aristocratic, while Mortensen’s Tony Vallelonga is as street-level as they come. And yet we can see them wanting to be just a bit like the other.
As the two men journey through the South on an eight-week concert tour, guided by Tony’s intuition and the Green Book — a real publication that guided black motorists to safe businesses, updated annually from the ‘30s to the ‘60s — the story slowly grows more serious. Don Shirley is thrown into more dangerous situations, and forced to rely more on Tony. The actors capture all the difficult and frightening aspects of moving deeper into intolerant country — and constantly show how relying on one another can benefit them both.
A Surprising Director
The biggest surprise about GREEN BOOK may be that it comes from director Peter Farrelly. He’s half of the Farrelly Brothers, best known for over the top, vulgar comedies like THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and DUMB AND DUMBER. But the Farrellys have mellowed since they first came on the comedy scene, and Peter Farrelly spent the last few years developing this film.
Making outlandish comedies like KINGPIN takes very specific skills with actors. People have to trust their director to play scenes that could make them look more foolish than funny. Farrelly has made that happen over and over again throughout his 25-year career. So while the story and tone of GREEN BOOK are different from his other films, his ability to collaborate with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen is precisely what helped him make memorable movies in the past.
GREEN BOOK is in theaters now!