Leads Carry "Green Book" Past Blind Spots

It wasn’t so long ago that a feel-good movie about racism cleaned up at the Academy Awards, presumably pacifying an old, white base of Oscar voters that fancied themselves progressives. Thirty years on the Academy is more inclusive, but the country’s deep-seated, handed-down racism has an avatar in the White House, making aforementioned Best Picture-winner “Driving Miss Daisy” seem nearly prehistoric. (Spike Lee’s incendiary masterwork “Do The Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated for the top prize that year, to the Academy’s great shame).

Real-life period piece “Green Book” may not be as downy as “Miss Daisy” or quite as obvious an awards play, but it is dated and sporadically tone deaf. Compounding these issues: several offscreen controversies, each uniquely discomforting. And yet “Green Book” prevails as a well-acted, well-crafted, and occasionally incisive film, seeing writer-director Peter Farrelly successfully break out of screwball comedy (a genre he mined for a handful of outright classics with brother Bobby) into more serious, substantial subject matter.

Actors Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”) are the main event here, both spectacular, each bringing a different brand of guarded charisma to his role.

It’s fall 1962 and New York City nightclub bouncer Frank Vallelonga, a gruff, roundly prejudiced Italian raconteur (and later, Hollywood actor) known to most as Tony Lip (Mortensen) is out of work. His place of employment, the famous Copacabana, is closing for renovations and Tony can’t afford time off – not with wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two sons at home.

When Tony interviews for a driving job, there’s no mistaking him for a finishing school grad. But he tamps down the bigotry and boisterousness just enough for renowned black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) to take a chance on him for his upcoming Don Shirley Trio tour. Tony’s gravelly, shoot-from-the-hip style is a strange match for Don’s intellect and poise straightaway, but Don’s heard whispers of how tough Tony is. And the famed musician needs more than a driver where he’s going. He needs protection.

Tony’s penchant for punching proves useful as he and Don, in a turquoise Cadillac DeVille, make their way from Manhattan to the Midwest to the Deep South, where a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book becomes indispensible. As much lifesaver as guidebook, its stark delineation of black-friendly institutions and whites-only sundown towns (where in 1962 intimidation and violence remain the norm) provide Tony with a clue of a world he’d never considered; of life outside his Bronx bubble.

Don even faces blatant discrimination from some of his hosts, relying on his own sangfroid – and Tony’s brute force in a pinch – to make it through a few nights physically and mentally intact.

At times the lightness of Don and Tony’s rapport is at odds with the weight of the material, and Farrelly and his co-writers (including Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga) rarely give voice to Don’s anxieties and fears. When their script does though, the film crests, cutting through the broad humor of Tony’s absurd eating habits (at one point he eats an entire pizza as if it were a taco) to the ills of racism, both individual and systemic.

There are fair criticisms to be made of “Green Book” and conversations to be had over whether it qualifies as a “white savior” film. The screen version of Tony Lip, at least, is a racist and the movie bends over backwards to humanize him – even at his most appalling. (There were several unseemly laughs from the audience at this writer’s showing.) Moreoever, Peter Farrelly, a white man, is a clumsy fit at best for translating the late Don Shirley’s story or his understanding (or as the movie posits, misunderstanding) of black culture to film. These are very real blind spots.

Still, it is a wonderfully acted movie with real moments of insight into the Jim Crow South and how far removed from it we aren’t. Provided it stirs necessary conversation, “Green Book” can’t be considered anything but a win. It’s no “Do The Right Thing.” But it’s no “Driving Miss Daisy,” either.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 21, 2018
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Peter Farrelly
Screenwriters: Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallenlonga, Brian Currie
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material)