Going for a different sort of ride in the civil rights-era South
“Green Book” is as feel-good as Oscar-season movies get, a true-story entertainment of interracial brotherhood that works hard to kindle a holiday glow. It’s the kind of movie that hammers on your heart even as it’s tripping over its feet, hobbled by unexamined notions of race, ethnicity, and class. Don’t look too closely, and you’ll have a very good time.
It’s 1962, and the Kennedy Era is in full swing. Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip, a good-hearted Bronx bad boy with a swagger, a gut, a mean left hook, and a loving clan, anchored by wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). When Tony’s bouncer’s gig at the Copacabana is put on hold for renovations, he picks up two months’ work as a driver for a jazz musician on holiday tour.
The tour is of the Deep South. The jazz musician is black. As played by Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Don Shirley is an impeccably well-spoken aesthete, cultured, reserved, uptight. The job interview scene in Shirley’s apartments above Carnegie Hall is a treat, the befuddled Tony sunk in a chair surrounded by African art and artifacts while Shirley coolly surveys him from an actual throne.
The tour, with two white musicans (Dimiter D. Marinov and Mike Hatton) in an accompanying car, wends through Louisville, Ky., Baton Rouge, La., Macon, Ga., with the Don Shirley Trio playing their neo-classical jazz at concerts, country clubs, and elegant house parties. Beside Tony on the front seat is a copy of the Green Book, the black guide to restaurants and lodgings in the South that gives the movie its name. The driver’s been hired to get the pianist from point A to point B and to appear large, white, and threatening or conciliatory as necessary.
It becomes necessary, especially when Shirley steps into a bar in search of a drink or seeks out ill-advised companionship. (By contrast, a scene in which Shirley calls in a high-placed favor when the two are jailed in a “sundown town” is played for satisfying comedy.)
The meat of the movie is tutelary: Tony Lip getting out of the Bronx and his comfort zone and learning to see Dr. Don Shirley as not just a “moolie” — his friends’ racist word for African-Americans, from the Italian for “eggplant” — and not even a talented black man but as a friend. Mortensen gives himself over to the part, body-weight and soul, and he and Ali work together nicely as Shirley reveals layers of shyness, insecurity, and torment behind his icy reserve.
Tony’s as broad-minded as this movie allows a working-class Italian-American in 1962 to be, which is sort-of but not too. (At home, he throws out the water glasses used by a pair of black repairmen; wife Dolores picks them right back out of the trash.) The joke of this reverse “Driving Miss Daisy” — the fuel of its comedy and the motor of its moral education — is that Shirley crosses Tony’s wires. He doesn’t act like a black guy is “supposed to.”
It’s that “supposed to” that “Green Book” keeps stubbing its toe on. What are we to make of a scene in which Tony teaches the fastidious Dr. Shirley how to eat fried chicken, which — can you believe it? — this African-American man has somehow never had? How are we supposed to read a sequence at an Alabama roadhouse in which Tony prompts his boss to loosen up and play stride piano for an audience the movie presents as “real” black people? Director Peter Farrelly, celebrated for “Dumb and Dumber”-style comedy and making his most serious work to date, can’t finesse the cross-currents of race and class in these and other scenes.
So the movie’s a crowd-pleasing cartoon, one that wallows in every cliché about Tri-State Italian-Americans of the early 1960s while embracing black Americans as wise, sad, and ultimately unknowable. (There’s a mid-narrative revelation about the pianist that could and arguably should have been layered in much earlier.) Nick Vallelonga, one of Tony Vallelonga’s sons, has co-scripted and co-produced with a charming if heavy dose of filial piety and cameo appearances by most of the family. They’re cute, but it takes actors like Mortensen and Cardellini to sidestep all the stereotypes.
“Green Book” is well-intentioned and well made, and it works better the less you think about it, which is why it will probably be a success. It’s a movie built to flatter white audiences, who are meant to feel wiser and more evolved than Tony even as they share his front-seat vantage point and cheer his evolution. That said, there’s a whole other movie to be made about the view from the back of the car.
Directed by Peter Farrelly. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Farrelly. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini. At Boston Common. 130 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material).