Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian bouncer from the Bronx. It’s 1962 in New York and Tony suddenly finds himself unemployed. Recommended for a job as a driver for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), Tony can’t pass up the good pay.
Dr. Shirley is a black piano virtuoso touring the Midwest and Deep South.
As Tony and Dr. Shirley get to know one another, they only see the others’ flaws. Dr. Shirley is an inflexible, over-educated diva, while Tony is seen as a crass, under-educated heavy.
When this country’s racial divide becomes front and center on Dr. Shirley’s tour, both men discover that they have an ally in this personal fight.
“Green Book” is inspired by a true story and does not disguise its intentions, nor does it overdramatize this touchy subject. This outstanding film uses its balance of humor and drama to bring audiences an honest story about race relations.
The Green Book was a travel guide for blacks, guiding them to safe/segregated restaurants and hotels in the South.
Using role reversal, viewers immediately realize that two distinctively different worlds will collide. Dr. Shirley is the employer of a white man. He is well-educated, refined and easily moves among the white elite. Tony is uneducated, has never left his New York Borough and is embarrassingly rough around the edges. This dichotomy is what perfectly sets up this charming narrative.
We can root for both men, one to safely tour the South, the other to expand his horizons – literally and figuratively. Both men retain who they are, but by the end, their cores have changed for the better, with help from the other.
Ali’s Dr. Shirley is a complex man. He neither fits in with those of his race nor is he truly accepted by his white peers. Mortensen’s Tony constantly overeats, curses, is unintentionally racist and just won’t stop talking. This dynamic duo lights up the screen with their complex interactions and Oscar-worthy performances.
Director Peter Farrelly refuses to compromise this subject with anything that will distract viewers. The road trip offers a natural means to strip this story to its bare bones – two men dealing with their prejudices. The result is a story of hope, dignity and unity. Farrelly takes this emotionally charged subject and using a true story reminds audiences that human dignity, respect and love are universal.
“Green Book” is an uplifting story about racism and race relations and shows that, “ . . . it takes more than genius, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.”
The epitome of a crowd-pleaser, “Green Book” eventually defies expectations after starting out as a very stereotypical odd-couple movie. It’s like a stealth bomber slowly creeping up on you, and then “Pow” – all warm and fuzzy like a holiday Hallmark movie.
Sure, some parts are corny and sappy, but then the deft performances of Mahershala Ali as the sophisticated, highly educated, classically trained pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as the beefy bouncer from the Bronx Tony “Lip” Vallelonga subtly win us over. As they find common ground during the two-month road trip, we settle in to the disturbing reality of a segregated deep South in 1962.
What makes so surprising is that it really happened. The true story of an unlikely friendship is brought to vivid life through a poignant and smart screenplay by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie Hayes and writer-director Peter Farrelly – yes, the same one who did “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
Nick had tape-recorded his father telling the movie-ready stories years ago, and his mother had saved his father’s letters, so the material is authentic. Farrelly, of course, can find humor in any situation, but he allows the sharp contrast of the struggles and the touching emerging understanding to shine through without over-emphasis.
The film may be assembled in big strokes – a book-smart cultured man paired with a street-smart guy template, but it’s the small moments that are most impressive. Because of Tony’s Italian roots, loyalty and respect were paramount to him – in business and personal relationships. We witness his big heart, too, something unexpected when you see him portrayed as this fast-talking, chain-smoking, over-eating, under-educated lunk.
Shirley comes across as cold and aloof, but when he reveals how he doesn’t seem to fit into any world – black or white – it’s an a-ha moment.
The movie uses the beauty of America as the backdrop for a reality check into the ugliness of the United States, a history lesson that we can use, now and always.