You watch “Green Book” wishing it were a little better, but nonetheless enjoying how very good much of it is, thanks to Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, who make every moment sing. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
The likable tale of a real-life friendship, “Green Book” lets us spend two hours in the company of two electric actors. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Anthony Vallelonga, better known as Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx and a massive lug fond of talking with a bobbing cigarette in his mouth and eating an entire pizza in one go (he folds it, like a newspaper). Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a black American of Jamaican descent and a renowned pianist and leader of the Don Shirley Trio. A slender man with meticulously perfect posture and imperious dignity, he’s perpetually graceful even when he drinks too much — which he does, fairly often.
It’s 1962, and life conspires to throw these two very different men together: Don needs a driver for his upcoming concert tour, someone who can handle the kind of trouble that a black man in the Jim Crow South might face. (The title refers to a popular guide used in that era by black travelers, to help them find welcoming lodging in the often hostile South.) Tony, though initially reluctant — we’ve seen him, at home, throwing into the garbage a drinking glass used by a black repairman — needs the work and agrees. And off we go, on a sort of reverse “Driving Miss Daisy,” as Tony learns to appreciate classical and jazz music (“he plays like Liberace, but better,” he enthuses, of Don), Don learns the pleasures of fast food, and the two of them eventually realize that they have become friends.
Perhaps because the screenplay is co-written by Tony’s real-life son, Nick Vallelonga, “Green Book” often feels out of balance, focusing on Tony when its far more intriguing character is Don. Tony’s life and his contented marriage (his wife is sweetly played by Linda Cardellini) are an open book, and not an especially compelling one; he’s given interest by the wit of Mortensen’s performance. Don, however, is fascinating — what was life like for a black classical musician in midcentury America? Particularly one who needed to tour out of financial necessity? He’s a lonely and quiet character, for complicated reasons (look at the tension behind the automatic social smile Ali gives him), and director/co-writer Peter Farrelly doesn’t seem particularly interested in him, other than as a vehicle for Tony’s character to recognize and begin to overcome his own racism.
You watch “Green Book” wishing it were a little better but nonetheless enjoying how very good much of it is, thanks to Mortensen and Ali, who make every moment sing. Watch them, sitting side-by-side at a honky-tonk bar in the Deep South; both of them fish out of water, both on the verge of opening the door to friendship. And while the film’s final moment is right out of a screenwriting manual, it nonetheless works enchantingly. I left wanting to know much more about the real Don Shirley (who died in 2013), but happy to have spent time in the car with him and Tony.
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★★★ “Green Book,” with Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, P.J. Byrne. Directed by Peter Farrelly, from a screenplay by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Farrelly. 130 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. Opens Nov. 21 at multiple theaters.