The new film “Green Book” is a crowd-pleasing bromance, set against a real-life grim historical setting.
Right off the bat, the new film “Green Book” looks like a twist on “Driving Miss Daisy.”
That film won best Picture for 1989. A better movie, “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated. But Spike Lee’s film has defined the race-relations movie more in the last 30 years.
“Green Book” is well-done and likable, but nowadays it looks like a sentimental myth. Even though it is “inspired” by a true story, much of it set in the South of the early 1960’s, it gets a somewhat light-hearted treatment from director Peter (“Dumb and Dumber”) Farrelly. It’s not much of a surprise that this week, it received Golden Globes nominations in the Comedy/Musical category.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Villalongo, or “Tony Lip” a street-wise Bronx resident who is temporarily out of work as a bouncer. He gets an offer to chauffeur a black classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, on a tour that will wend its way through the Deep South.
When he meets “the Doc”—a precise-speaking lofty character who floats around an apartment above Carnegie Hall loaded with objects d’art—it looks like the movie’s done. But Tony needs a job and the Doc (played by Mahershala Ali) needs someone who can handle “situations.”
So, they’re off on that ever-popular plot—the Odd Couple on a Road Trip.
Mortenson conscientiously put on weight for his character. He doesn’t have a beer belly but he’s getting there. He has a high old time playing a profane, over-talkative slob, who eats like a couch potato—chomping on Kentucky Fried Chicken—even when he’s behind the wheels of a speeding car.
The Doc would prefer to have Quiet Time—sitting in the back seat under his blanket.
But gradually an understanding forms. Tony is dazzled by the Doc’s piano work; he feels the loneliness of a man who doesn’t fit into a white or a black world; and he’s disgusted by the velvet-gloved subjugation from well-dressed Southerners—who gush over Dr. Shirley but politely direct him to the segregated dining room or outhouse in the backyard.
Dr. Shirley, in turn, comes to rely on Tony to get him out of scrapes. He unbends enough to eat fried chicken with his bare hands. And he becomes a kind of Cyrano, helping Tony with his letters home to his wife.
The script is by director Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Villalonga, real-life son of Tony (who acted on the Sopranos, among other things.)
The story they’ve told is predictable—it’s an audience-pleaser with some interesting details—such as the Green Book, a real-life tourist guide that advised black travelers what restaurants or hotels were available for them.
What carries the picture are the stars—Mortenson who plays a thick, brutal bigot that you’re hoping to see redeemed—and Ali who conveys a wounded dignity without distancing himself from you.
“The Green Book” gets three and a half stars out of five—even if many people might say it’s too optimistic about the times, 55 years ago or today.
The Friday Film Review is sponsored by Park City Film.