Peter Farrelly’s audience-pleasing Oscar favourite is a somewhat contrived yet nevertheless enjoyable comedic character drama featuring two marvellous performances.
Farrelly, who usually makes crazier comedies with his brother Bobby (like the Dumb And Dumber double-header), finally matures with this based-on-fact charmer, which does have some Hollywood touches – but who cares? And, in the end, it’s as much about racism and injustice as it is friendship.
In New York back in 1962, bouncer Frank Vallelonga a.k.a. ‘Tony Lip’ (Viggo Mortensen) is introduced during a big night, where he gets into a punch-up and impresses a series of characters straight out of the Martin Scorsese playbook. The always fit and trim Viggo had to stack on the weight to play Frank, and the picky Danish American actor is quite convincing as the Italian American Frank.
Early scenes featuring Frank’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and his extended family (several of them played by the real Frank’s relatives) are nicely handled, but there’s an edge, as we’re given a subtle glimpse of their ingrained racism. When Frank needs work to fill in two months while the club is being renovated, he’s naturally offered a series of not-quite-legal gigs by friends, but instead he opts to be driver, assistant and protector for Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black pianist dangerously but defiantly travelling on a concert tour through the deepest, darkest South. And why not? The money’s good, there are expenses, and he’s concerned that Shirley and his two accompanists are going to get themselves killed.
Like the best movies about unlikely friendships (and indeed the best friendships), the trip starts with the two men totally at odds and getting on each other’s nerves, as Frank scoffs junk food, keeps taking his eyes off the road and more than once reveals his prejudices. The graceful, intellectual Don can’t stand it at first, but eventually he starts giving Frank advice and guidance, and soon some humour creeps into their interactions. But then Frank is called upon to save Don’s hide, and the two really start talking.
Taking its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a genuine publication that assisted brave black travellers in US states where ‘Jim Crow’ laws persisted, this benefits greatly from Farrelly’s careful direction and the pleasingly restrained performances. They’re both generous actors, and Viggo’s wise-guy routine never goes over-the-top or outshines Mahershala’s refined airs-and-graces, and vice versa. It’s also pretty obvious that they became pals along the way off-camera, which helps greatly.
While there isn’t some glorious solution offered here as a way to end racism and intolerance forever, there is a sense of hope and a sweetness of spirit, as it’s suggested that, perhaps, the first step in understanding other people, other cultures and general otherness is simply to talk.
Green Book (M) is in cinemas now