America is one of the world’s richest and most powerful countries, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a considerable portion of the population. It’s this hypocrisy that writer-director Peter Farrelly examines in his new feature, “Green Book.” The movie goes back only a few decades in American history to explain why “the land of the free” label has never been entirely true. To make his point, Farrelly enlists two of today’s most talented actors, pairs them with a witty script, and then lets the sparks fly.
It’s 1962, and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian-American husband and father who works nights as a doorman/fixer at the Copacabana. He may not be book smart – he refers to Chopin as Joe Pan – but he’s clever and knows how to handle tough situations. When the Copa shuts down for two months of renovations, Tony needs to find work, and it seems like providence when a golden opportunity floats his way. A world-class pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is about to tour through the southern states and needs a driver/fixer to keep things running smoothly. There’s one major problem: Don is Black. Tony has no love for Black people, but the money is good, so the classy pianist and the meat-head from the Bronx jump in a car and take off on a southern adventure.
Farrelly puts his actors in front of the camera armed with a tight script, but this picture sinks or swims based on the chemistry between its two leads. And fortunately for viewers, Mortensen and Ali couldn’t turn in better work. They’re two supremely talented dramatic actors, and their performances here scream out, “Oh we got jokes too!” Mortensen plays a wise guy who may as well have stepped off the set of a Scorsese movie. There are a million reasons to not like this brash and racist thug, so the actor has his work cut out for him winning the audience over. Tony is a brute, but it’s his principals that help him survive in his kill-or-be-killed world. He may be mean but he’s not a bully, and it’s this moral loophole that allows him to slowly bond with Don.
Watching Ali become Don is a thing of beauty. He moves with the regal swagger of a king, he speaks with the authority of a scholar, and thinks with the moral integrity of a civil rights activist. Ali is already spinning lots of plates, but there are still more layers to Don. Look past his cool exterior, and you have a conflicted man battling loneliness and self-loathing. Don’s every step, every glance, and every enunciation is an exercise in precision that makes the performance so engrossing. Ali isn’t an actor repeating lines, he’s more like a T-1000 with a booking agent, fundamentally shifting his DNA to become the thing he imitates.
Cinematographer Sean Porter is the picture’s unsung hero, his vivid take on ‘60s-era New York is simply dreamy. Tony’s Bronx neighborhood is all malt shops, doo-wop music, and neon signs. It’s a pure pleasure looking at the movie’s romanticised vision of the past, and it makes an alluring backdrop to the start of Tony’s journey. When the guys make their way down south it’s as though they traveled back in time. Gone are the tail-finned cars and glamorous clubs, and in their place are rusted pickups, stray dogs, and rundown hardware stores. Porter’s unkempt vision of southern life reminds viewers how far the men are from home and also how fast things can go wrong for Don.
Known for his broad, gross-out comedies with his brother, Bobby (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Kingpin,” etc.), the Farrellys have veered off on slightly different paths in recent years; Bobby’s making his first solo effort soon (the rom-com “One Night Stan“), and Peter moving into a more mature direction with the dark comedy of “Loudermilk” on the Audience Network. And this more developed and mellow mood certainly permeates “Green Book.”
Farrelly’s story about the past comments on the intolerance plaguing us today, specifically at the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Tony defines himself as a proud Italian, and that is the lens through which he sees the world. But the proud tradition he uses to prop himself up also smothers him. Tony doesn’t realize what a small world he resides in until Don comes along. Only when an “other” forces him out of his comfort zone – practically kicking and screaming – does Tony finally grasp how much of life he’s missing out on. It’s a recurring theme in American history, starting with Indigenous people and blacks, moving on to the Chinese, the Irish, Italians, and Jews. Now, it’s impossible to imagine America without its rich tapestry of cultures.
“Green Book” is an on-the-nose social commentary that is told with such craftsmanship, earnestness, and comedic expertise that you’re still excited to go along for the ride. This movie proves that Farrelly, who has hits dating back to the ’90s, is still growing as a filmmaker and potentially capable of more. It also helps that he has a pair of knockout performances from his two stars. Mortensen and Ali put on a hell of a show, delivering memorable characters capable of tickling funny bones and yanking on heartstrings. [B]