By Jim Slotek
There’s something utterly familiar and at the same time unconventional about Green Book, the touching and funny road-movie starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, set in 1962 against the backdrop of Jim Crow-era America.
The racial-comfort-food premise of a street-wise, chatterbox driver loosening the strait-laces of a fussy employer in the backseat might at one time (say, 25 years ago) have involved Eddie Murphy behind the wheel, opposite, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Sam Neill.
But this real-life based story – which won the People’s Choice Award at theToronto International Film Festival, a Best Picture predictor - offers a reverse racial trope. Mortensen’s goombah, self-described “bullshit artist” Tony Lip is the guy who’s comfortable in his skin as he eats and smokes with gusto in the front seat, while his boss Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class classical/jazz pianist on a tour of the U.S. South, struggles with disapproval, social awkwardness and with his own overwhelming loneliness.
Mortensen paints the broad strokes in this movie as Tony – a sometime bouncer at New York’s Copa, a guy who knows all the wiseguys and who really can seemingly talk his way out of anything (though he’s hired as “muscle” for a black celebrity making his way through Dixie, he only resorts to violence once in the movie, and it isn’t the wisest move). Mortensen plays him with a kind of childlike elan, a guy whose eyes light up at the prospect of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky.
But it’s Ali who makes the biggest impact as Don, peeling back layers like an onion to reveal the quandary of a man “too white to be black and too black to be white” in the society in which he lives. At first, it’s uncomfortable watching Tony “splain” the Little Richard and Aretha Franklin tunes on the radio to a black man (And even give him his first ever taste of fried chicken. Director Peter Farrelly is still willing to engage stereotypes as he morphs from the guy who made Dumb and Dumber into an awards-season indie director).
But Don, whose life was all conservatories at an early age, is estranged, not just from a brother and an ex-wife, but seemingly from his entire race when he’s forced to stay in the second rate “Colored” motels along their route. For all the scary white racism they encounter along the way, Don’s most overpoweringly anxious moments seem to involve his interactions with fellow blacks, whose eyes narrow at the sight of him. (The title Green Book refers to a road almanac Tony is given of places that welcome Negroes in the South).
For his part, Mortensen’s Tony gets “woke” maybe a little quickly. As Green Book begins, his own racism is so virulent, he throws out drinking glasses that were used by black repairmen in his family’s home. How did a guy who refers to blacks in Italian as “mulignana” (eggplants) become such a fan of black R&B singers?
Circumstances aside, this really is a tightly-focused story, with Mortensen and Ali working off each other beautifully. Tony and Don fling probing insults at each other, Tony’s “snaps” being plain-spoken and Don’s so subtly erudite, Tony doesn’t even know he’s being patronized. Their relationship survives Don’s attempts to give elocution lessons and is cemented by his flowery rewrites of Tony’s love letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini)..
It’s comforting to know this is a real story (Tony and Don both died five years ago, still life-long friends). Were it invented, it would be greeted with cynicism (and probably still will in some quarters). Green Book is not the deepest depiction of racism, but it is a funny and heartwarming depiction of a friendship, forged in a car.
Green Book. Directed by Peter Farrelly. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali and Linda Cardellini. Opens in select markets including Toronto, Friday, November 16. Opens wide Friday, November 23.