Set in 1962, the film tracks the literal and figurative real-life journey of two unlikely traveling companions: hulking NYC club bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali), the virtuoso pianist who hires Tony to be his muscle on a potentially dangerous eight-week concert tour through the racially divided Deep American South. Tony’s a somewhat narrow-minded working-class goombah from the Bronx; Doc is an educated, eloquent and wealthy entertainer – but he’s also a black man prepping to visit multiple cities where the color of his skin will automatically put him in danger.
So, despite their differences, the duo navigate a discovery-filled road trip, informed by the titular publication: the travel guide that listed the “safe” places at which people of color to eat, dine and stay while in segregated states. Not surprisingly, their journey is fraught with assorted perils, and there are more than a few catch-in-the-stomach moments designed to drive home the realities of overt racism and, even more so, what was deemed “polite” racism.
Both actors are wonderful, and their chemistry is pitch-perfect. Mortensen infuses Tony with warmth and charm, so that you can’t help but like him… even when he’s spouting some kind of racist stereotype. And Ali makes sure that Doc’s fear and insecurities are subtly but tidily woven into his otherwise confident, self-assured presentation. Nevermind the wildly impressive piano work: I actually watched the film and wondered if Ali was a secret virtuoso himself or if the filmmakers had employed some kind of amazing new kind of CGI. (He isn’t and they didn’t, but wow. It’s convincing!)
Together, Mortensen and Ali make an endearing and effective onscreen pair. And the farther Tony and Doc drive, the further the layers of their friendship are cemented – first, within an employer/employee context, but gradually into mutual understanding and genuine growth for each of them. Tony’s not a racist meathead and Doc isn’t a pretentious know-it-all, and it’s hard to keep prejudice and preconceived ideas going when you’re splitting a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky or being mutually harassed by police officers for being out past a racially divisive curfew. Adversity makes strange bedfellows and all that.
Directed by Peter Farrelly – yep, half of the filmmaking team responsible for such over-the-top comedies as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary – and featuring many real-life members of the Vallelonga family in bit parts, the film has been compared to Driving Miss Daisy, The Help and Hidden Figures (it even boasts Octavia Spencer, who co-starred in the latter two, as an executive producer). And while some may view that as a slight, I think it’s high praise. Green Book is an unabashed feel-good movie about dissimilar souls overcoming bigotry in challenging times and finding common ground. It’s got heart, humor and terrific performances from its two leads, and is destined to delight audiences through the Christmas-movie season, I’m sure.