[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.]
A sly corrective to “Driving Miss Daisy,” the sentimental dramedy “Green Book” is not the sort of movie one might expect from one half of the directing duo behind “Dumb and Dumber.” But director Peter Farrelly’s endearing story about a tough Italian-American from the Bronx shepherding an acclaimed black pianist from New York City through the Deep South in 1962 nails the formula for a touching and meaningful look at race and class in America, the likes of which studios rarely produce anymore. It’s an obvious but enjoyable period piece — and a throwback to another era of Hollywood filmmaking, resurrected in the 21st century with two of the best actors working today, who elevate this didactic form of storytelling above the market standard for schmaltz.
Proving that he can blend in with virtually any material at his disposal, Viggo Mortensen adds another notch to his chameloenesque abilities as the streetwise Frank Anthony Vallelonga, who prefers the casual monicker Tony Lip. A no-nonsense guido willing to do anything to support the family in the community where he’s spent his entire life, Tony loses his gig at the Copacabana and suddenly needs a new source of employment. Summoned to a palatial apartment above Carnegie Hall, the feisty character finds himself faced down by affluent pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who offers Tony a two-month gig to drive him on a concert tour through several southern states.
The pair’s odd-couple chemistry immediately takes hold, with the straight-faced musician’s highbrow temperament striking Tony as a complete mystery. He’s equally confused about Don’s assumption that Tony would have a problem with black people. “Just the other day, my wife and I had a couple coloreds over … for drinks,” says Tony. He gets the gig.
So yes, “Green Book” is one of those by-the-numbers feel-good stories about two men from different worlds uniting over universal hardships and overcoming the biases of a less enlightened time. But Farrelly tackles the material with a confidence that makes each beat count, as the story plays up the offbeat dynamic between the two through a series of complications, most of which call for Tony to take charge as Don faces numerous racist developments over the course of their road trip. Despite occasionally overplaying the “white savior” archetype, the screenplay maintains a clear sense of both characters, in part because it draws on a true story. The screenplay is co-written by the real-life Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who appears to have drawn from his father’s vivid memories of the experience. It could have made a charming documentary; instead, it’s an actor’s showcase.
The movie’s best scenes unfold as Tony speeds down the highway, running his mouth, while Don’s subdued facade gradually shows some cracks as Tony’s charm sets in. As the charismatic man introduces Tony to fried chicken and cranks up the radio, the pair confront internalized biases from both sides of the aisle. The gap between Tony’s understanding of Don’s educated mindset and Don’s cultured standards yield constant punchlines. Shocked that Don’s never heard of Lil Richard and Aretha Franklin, Tony declares, “These are your people!” When Don responds, “You have a very narrow perception of me,” Tony chuckles with the reply, “I’m good, right?”
At times, “Green Book” feels as if it was made several decades ago, and falls short of foregrounding Don’s hardships so much as Tony’s relationship to them. On several occasions, he jumps into action to save Don from various forms of bigotry — a brawl at an all-white bar, crude police officers, and a segregated restaurant all figure into a plot that grows tiresome after several variations on the same complication. However, Farrelly manages to juggle these scenes with a delicate balance of humor and bittersweet vibes that actually do surface in many of the lowbrow comedies he directed with his brother Bobby. Remove the slapstick, and there’s not that big of a gap between the emotional trajectory of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Green Book,” both of which deal with overconfident men who get in touch with their sensitive side. The new movie’s schematic approach builds out Tony’s gentler side with his constant attempts to mail letters to his wife (a warm Linda Cardellini), struggling to describe anything of note until Don takes over the composition.
The bond between the two men starts to fray right on cue, though there’s a decent amount of authenticity to the way they talk through the tensions between them once they bubble to the surface. Mortensen inhabits the character with a kind of authenticity that endows some of the more heavy-handed showdowns with surprising depth (particularly in a monologue where he tells Ali, “I’m blacker than you are”), and Ali’s major studio role since his Oscar win for “Moonlight” allows him to transform a part that could have instantly fallen into a crude caricature and make it real. A brilliant artist incapable of fully expressing the many facets of his personality, Don sits at the cross-section of America’s evolving attitudes toward race, but the movie wisely avoids overplaying that symbolism by simply letting the story move along to its rousing conclusion.
Produced with the elegance and economy of classic studio production, “Green Book” glides along with a jazzy soundtrack and vivid period details. Cinematographer Sean Porter, whose credits include Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” and “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” excels at capturing middle America as a rich tapestry of smoky bars and empty lots. He also gives the musical performances their due, setting the stage for an extraordinary climactic piano jam that does a better job of achieving the movie’s cross-cultural message than any of the spats building up to it.
As if it hadn’t yet hit every trope on schedule, “Green Book” arrives at a good-natured Christmas finale, where the coda has been telegraphed long before it arrives. Nevertheless, the movie maintains an unapologetic air as it goes through the usual motions, and Farrelly never loses grasp of the welcoming tone. A chronicle of two men from opposing worlds finding common ground, “Green Book” works overtime to justify an easy win, and it’s hard not to appreciate the effort.
Universal Pictures will “Green Book” in limited theaters on Friday, November 16, before expanding nationwide on Wednesday, November 21.