(2018) (Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali) (PG-13)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Dramedy: An unrefined white nightclub bouncer takes a job driving a classically trained black pianist from one tour date to another through the deep South of the early 1960s.
- It's 1962 and Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (VIGGO MORTENSEN) is a bouncer at a swanky nightclub in New York. When that establishment closes for several months, Tony finds himself in the need of work and lucks out when he gets an unusual offer for an unusual job. It seems that classically trained concert pianist Don Shirley (MAHERSHALA ALI) needs a chauffeur and security guard and Tony's name was given to him as his best option.
The only issue is that Tony has some racist tendencies, Don is black, and the tour will take them through the deep South where racism-based incidents are more than likely to occur. Tony initially turns down the job, but with the pay being good and the work not going to be that hard, he finally agrees.
After saying goodbye to his wife, Dolores (LINDA CARDELLINI), and their kids, Tony hits the road with Don. They first head west through Pennsylvania and Ohio before turning left and heading south for various concerts and private gigs Don performs with the rest of The Don Shirley Trio, cellist Oleg (DIMITER MARINOV) and bassist George (MIKE HATTON).
At first, Don, who's very refined and proper and Tony, who's decidedly less so and can't stop talking or eating, are truly an odd couple pairing, both to themselves and to anyone who sees the white guy driving the black man through the deep South. But as the weeks go on and the two men get to know each other better, they forge an unlikely but deep friendship while facing rampant racism most everywhere they go.
- OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
- Back in 1965, Neil Simon debuted his play, "The Odd Couple," on Broadway that featured two mismatched roommates -- one uptight and fastidious, the other a fun-loving slob -- and the hilarity that ensued from that pairing and the clash of their differences. It went on to spin off both a film and then a TV series of the same name.
And if not for the existence of that perfect trifecta, the true-life events depicted in the absolutely terrific "Green Book" easily could have been given that "odd couple" title. Or perhaps "Driving Mr. Shirley" if not for "Driving Miss Daisy" (the 1989 dramedy where Morgan Freeman played a black chauffeur driving around an older white Jewish woman -- Jessica Tandy -- in the deep South and amidst its rampant racism).
But in this film -- that likely will and should rack up its share of Oscar nominations like that one -- the situation has been reversed and then some. The driver (Viggo Mortensen) is a motor-mouth white tough guy from early 1960s New York who takes a job driving a classically trained and prim and proper black pianist (Mahershala Ali) through the deep South for a concert tour.
That might sound like a fictitious high concept Hollywood pitch idea designed either to elicit the yuks (which, on its surface, could explain the presence of director Peter Farrelly who, along with his brother, has helmed the likes of "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary") or as Oscar bait examining racial issues that still haunt our country.
It turns out it's something of both -- in the best way possible -- but what's remarkable is that it's all based on a true story that took place in the early 1960s and created an initially unlikely but ultimately lifelong friendship between the real-life men that lasted until they died within months of each other in 2013.
Written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and the driver's real-life son, Nick Vallelonga, who heard all of the stories from his father, the pic is the feel-good offering of 2018 with fabulous performances from the two leads, a terrific script, and a smart examination of various thematic elements without ever feeling heavy-handed, treacly or insensitive. So far, it's my pick for best film of 2018 and I think you're going to enjoy it quite a bit as well.
As the story begins, we see Frank Vallelonga (Mortensen) working as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. He's not only smart in knowing how to get himself in good graces with the power players, but also a tough guy who won't take any guff when called upon to remove somebody from the premises.
But he also has racist tendencies, including throwing away some glasses some black workers had used to drink water in his place, much to the chagrin of his obviously far more progressive and enlightened wife (Linda Cardellini). Accordingly, when he's offered a job driving the pianist (Ali) and drops the epithet "chink" to describe his Asian assistant, it doesn't seem like things are going to work out for the job.
Yet, Don is certain Tony is right for the position. And such racist stereotypes continue as the white driver is shocked the black pianist doesn't know the popular black music of the day and has never experienced fried chicken, a mindset Don must point out to Tony is misinformed and misguided. As their two-month tour plays out (truncated quite a bit from the real-life year and a half), Tony's eyes are opened more, including to the use of The Negro Motorist Green Book -- hence the film's title -- to find "black friendly" lodging for Don in the era and geography of "whites only" establishments.
All of that and related material easily could have derailed and turned the offering into an offensive comedy. But not only does it avoid that, but it serves as the catalyst that causes the men to bond as things progress. Ali is simply sublime as the refined man who finally loosens up a bit (all while suffering from external and internal conflict that's left him mostly as a loner), while Mortensen is terrific as a character who grows beyond his initial mindset and stereotypical trappings of such a character. Expect both to receive numerous award nominations.
And much like its main characters, the film evolves as it goes and turns into something both highly entertaining and heartfelt. I'm normally not one to wish a film was longer than it is, but I could have watched these two characters and the performers playing them long after the running time of 130 minutes was over. Simply put, "Green Book" is fabulous and earns a rating of 8 out of 10.
Reviewed October 16, 2018 / Posted November 21, 2019
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