Directed by one half of the Farrelly Brothers, Green Book isn’t content to simply smell like a Driving Miss Daisy. Yes, it’s a feel-good charmer poised to rake in greenbacks and Oscar gold. No, that shouldn’t keep you away from this overall well balanced (and timed) look forward from the safe distance of America’s motley past.
Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a “see the job, do the job” kinda soul. A liquor bottle is introduced to the base of a patron’s skull and in no time, the Copacabana bouncer ‘trows the goon to the curb, where he then proceeds to pound his kisser to jelly. Who knew the legendary nightclub was such a dangerous joint to work? But with the Copa set to close for renovation, the two-month hiatus until Christmas could be time well-spent away for Tony Lip.
Tony’s boss arranges an interview for a part-time gig, destination Carnegie Hall, where Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) — a jazz and classical musician, not a sawbones — resides. The year is 1962. Tony’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to act as Shirley’s chauffeur and man Friday on a concert tour through the deep South, where the further they drive, the worse things will get. (The title refers to a travel rulebook written by whites to steer people of color in the direction of segregated lodging.)
In Tony Lip’s culture, racism is as common as asking the person seated across the table to pass the salt. When a pair of black plumbers show up to unclog the Vallelonga’s sink, Tony’s friends and relatives — fearing that his lovely wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) will be accosted in the kitchen — assemble in force in the living room. When Tony discovers the two glasses they drank from, in the garbage they go.
Still, it’s not surprising that Tony took Shirley up on his well-paying offer. (His letter of reference must have been so persuasive that Shirley hired the Lip even after he let slip with an Asian slur.) Thankfully, these characters don’t conform to the Hollywood mold. Just as sure as Tony’s not all slob, the doc comes with his own built-in set of contractions, starting with a penchant for condescendingly lecturing Tony on his diction. And where does Shirley get off asking Tony to shorten his last name for the sake of making introductions easier? He goes through a bottle of Scotch a night, but damn if his smoking jacket and argyle socks don’t help to contribute to the imperturbable pose he strikes on the balcony. Just don’t let him wander too far from his part of town, lest Tony have to come bail him out of a gay bathhouse. (Nothing seems to faze Tony who, by his own admission, has seen pretty much all walks of life during his tenure at the Copa.)
What made me think this was going to be anything more than There’s Something About Driving Miss Daisy Dumber? The films of Peter Farrelly and his brother Bobby stick in my mind like a popcorn husk that has taken up permanent residence in the back of one’s throat. "Stone-faced" best describes my glower throughout Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. I walked out on Osmosis Jones and refused to enter their unnecessary remake of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid. Not until Chris Diamantopoulos’ stunning transmigration of Moe Howard in The Three Stooges was one of their pictures allowed a permanent parking space in my mile of DVDs.
Perhaps Bobby was the problem. Or the lack of a decent shooting-script, particularly one as meticulously nuanced as this. Before hitting the road, Green Book has the familiar feel of a classic mob movie. (Think De Niro’s A Bronx Tale.) Credit Farrelly and his casting director for populating the picture with a universe of goombas of their own creation. There’s not one Scorsese or Coppola background player in the bunch. Okay, you got me: co-screenwriter (and Tony Lip’s real-life son) Nick Vallelonga was twelve when he appeared as a guest at Connie Corleone’s wedding. And considering it’s a road picture, that old standby — the plot-advancing map that invites the eye to follow the animated perforated line — is dusted off for only one brief perfunctory cameo.
Ali and Mortensen’s deeply engaging performances are the best Christmas present moviegoers will open this year. As the impeccably unfastidious Tony Lip, Mortensen take a bite out of a fried chicken breast the way most folks would an apple. But there’s a brain and, dare I say it, a heart beating within his barrel chest that makes the character a joy to behold. It takes Shirley some time to thaw, but it’s when the two finally find themselves on even footing that the picture goes beyond a standard lecture on the evils of racism. Those content to wallow in the ignorance that breeds hate are not likely to buy a ticket to a movie such as this. The messages are not imparted with a wagging finger, but smuggled in as a shared experience.