Sean Porter, ASC press
'Green Book': Film Review | TIFF 2018
September 11, 2018

The Hollywood Reporter  9/11/2018 by Todd McCarthy



Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen star in Peter Farrelly's film about an Italian-American bouncer chauffeuring an African-American pianist across the South in the 1960s.

Green Book is almost a contradiction in terms, a feel-good buddy comedy-drama featuring an elegant black musician and his white driver on tour in the pre-integration South of 1962. Arriving in the wake of any number of edgy cinematic takes on racial issues, this Universal release represents a very middle-of-the-road liberal approach to a story that pretty much could have been told anytime since the 1960s. Distinctive and amusing turns by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali make Peter Farrelly’s first solo feature outing a lively and likable diversion.

The script by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and the director was inspired by an actual tour made by the gifted, multi-faceted musician Don Shirley (Ali). As the film shows, the Jamaican-born Shirley could superbly play any kind of music, from classical to jazz; spoke numerous languages (including Russian); and carried himself as an aristocrat who placed great stock in propriety and decorum.

However, for a swing that would start in the North but make most of its stops south of the Mason-Dixon line, Shirley realizes he needs a white driver to run interference if necessary. He finds him in Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer and enforcer who could have fathered almost any of the characters on The Sopranos.

A dees-n-dohs kinda guy first seen working at the Copacabana and never averse to a little rough stuff, Tony has a short fuse, a healthy-unhealthy appetite (he wins $50 by eating 26 hot dogs in a contest), a nice wife (Linda Cardellini) and a couple of young boys. For this latest physically transformative part, Mortensen has packed on quite a few pounds, adopted a new gait and a perfect Italian-American accent and beautifully sunk himself into the role of a capable, don’t-mess-with-me wise guy. He really zings this performance.

The role of Shirley requires a similar broad jump for Ali, but in a very different direction. In an apartment above Carnegie Hall, Shirley lives in highly decorated splendor and aristocratically interviews Tony from a throne while wearing a white robe and gold jewelry. This hardly looks like a match made in heaven (Tony certainly doesn’t think so), but Shirley insists that this self-assured, good-natured tough guy is exactly who he needs to keep him safe down South.

The title refers to Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, published annually from 1936-1966 as a guide for black travelers as to where they could stay, eat and receive services during the perilous days of Jim Crow and sundown laws.

As they head out of New York in a luxurious turquoise Cadillac (the two other members of the pianist’s trio drive separately), Shirley maintains a stoical hauteur as he aristocratically occupies in the back seat and, ironically, makes it clear that Tony needs to know his place. Farrelly has fun with their highly contrasting banter and in breaking down the barriers between the two, and by the time they hit Pittsburgh, Tony enthuses that his boss “plays like Liberace but better.” In general, what Shirley’s trio plays here could be described as very accomplished polite jazz.

Moments after being applauded and congratulated for his lovely performances before all-white audiences, the impeccably accoutered and mannered Shirley is forced to stay in mostly forlorn motels and flop houses. There’s a short scene at a YMCA in which Tony bribes a cop to let Shirley go after what looks to have been a gay pickup, but no further mention is made of this side of the musician’s life.

The ironies and injustices mount with depressing regularity the longer the tour continues in the South, notably an encounter with racist police in Mississippi in which Shirley’s skin is saved due only to an appeal to a very high level indeed. There’s also a letting-off-steam interlude when the pair goes to a black honky-tonk and Shirley gets down musically for the first time.

The dynamic of these objectively mismatched men is almost like that of The Odd Couple, as the formal, uptight man is gradually loosened up by the more uncouth, working-class stiff, as understanding and mutual benefit ensues. As such, it’s a familiar and conservative creative dynamic that seems pretty old-fashioned at this moment in time, but the human interchange, enlivened as it is by two fine actors in responsive form, make it go down easily and enjoyably.