Green Book is the kind of movie that leaves you with a feeling of elation. That doesn’t happen enough, and when it does, it is often accompanied by a heavy dose of sentiment. Not this time. This is pure entertainment.
We’ve all grown tired of seeing the legend “inspired by a true story,” but in this case the co-screenwriter is the son of the man depicted by Viggo Mortensen. He grew up listening to his father’s stories and recorded interviews with him before his passing in 2013. I’m sure dramatic license has been utilized, but the fundamentals are true.
The year is 1962. Mahershala Ali plays the brilliant pianist Don Shirley, who is about to embark on a tour of the South. As a highly intelligent black man, he knows what lies in store—even more so with his white accompanists in tow—so he seeks out a driver who can also serve as a protector. Several people recommend Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a straight-talking Italian-American whose most recent job was serving as a maitre d’ and sometimes-bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan.
The two men have little in common, and are destined to share two months on the road in a shiny blue Cadillac. The fastidious, well-spoken musician tries to smooth out some of his companion’s rough edges, but as it turns out, Shirley has a few things to learn from the bull-in-a-china-shop driver he has hired.
I don’t want to reveal much more about this faultless movie, which has a still-relevant social message in its DNA. I can barely find words to express my admiration for its stars. Ali inhabits the character of Don Shirley without ever hitting a false note. (Speaking of which, his keyboard “doubling” is a feat of movie magic, even though the actor studied piano for several months.) Credit for the piano work and an effectively subtle score go to relative newcomer Kris Bowers, a Juilliard-trained musician who has a bright future ahead of him in the world of film scoring.
I never would have thought of Viggo Mortensen for the role of a New York Italian who curses, smokes, and eats like a starving peasant. He loves his wife and kids and is a good provider; he stays clear of the mob bosses he brushes against. The performance is so perfect, so impeccably detailed, that you almost forget Mortensen isn’t the real thing.
I have not been director Peter Farrelly’s number-one fan, to put it mildly, although he and his brother have made some wildly popular comedies. But I tip my cap to him in his solo directing debut, for Green Book is a sheer delight. He shares writing credit with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, and they can all be proud of what they have accomplished. This is the kind of movie audiences—including families—may want to see more than once.