GREEN BOOK, biographical dramedy, rated R; Violet Crown, Regal Stadium 14; 3 chiles
This tale from Peter Farrelly, better known as one of the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber), follows a well-worn formula: an odd-couple pairing of polar opposites, a lout and an aesthete, who take a while to warm up to one another. But when they finally do, it’s as cozy as Christmas (where the movie ends).
The mismatched pair is Frank Anthony Vallelonga, or Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a brawling goombah from a Bronx Italian neighborhood, and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a fastidious concert pianist who lives in palatial splendor high atop Carnegie Hall. One is white, one is black.
The film is “inspired by a true story,” as distinguished from “based on,” and one wonders where that line falls, and which owes more responsibility to fact. The year is 1962. Dr. Shirley and his trio are embarking on a concert tour of the Deep South, and he requires a driver who can double as enforcer. Enter Tony, a bouncer at the Copacabana in need of a few months of freelance work.
Like its heroes, the movie struggles at first, using the broadest strokes to establish their personalities and contrasts. But eventually Farrelly allows his characters to take over and lets their humanities shine through, and as the road trip unfurls, they start to grow on you.
The title refers to a travel guide well known to traveling African Americans in the Jim Crow era, a Fodor’s of motels and eateries designed, as its introduction states, “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments, and to make his trips more enjoyable.” It’s a painful reminder of those days, and more could be made of the book here.
Tony starts off so racist that when a couple of black plumbers accept a drink of water from his wife (appealingly played by Linda Cardellini), Tony drops the glasses in the garbage. By the end, of course, he’s a new man. Mortensen warms into the role after laying the boor on a bit thick in the establishing scenes. Ali, too, has to play through a stereotype, but he emerges triumphant, and he ices the deal with superb work at the piano. A scene in a black Alabama roadhouse at the end of the tour is worth the price of admission.
There is scarcely a scene that you don’t see coming, scarcely an emotion that is not telegraphed in the screenplay (co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son), scarcely a button that is not pushed. And yet they are pushed and executed so winningly that in the final scenes you’d be inclined to forgive the movie even if an angel got his wings.