By Gregg Shapiro
Moviegoers seem to love movies about characters that appear to be one thing, but turn out to be another. Best Picture Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water” is a good example. So is “Green Book” (Universal), starring Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali and Academy Award-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen.
Yet another of 2018’s movies “inspired by a true story”, “Green Book” tells the early 1960s story of the unlikely friendship between two people on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum.
Bronx born and bred Tony (Mortensen) is a crude and barely literate family man. The husband of Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and father of two sons, Tony works as a bouncer as the Copacabana nightclub. When the club closes for a couple months of renovations, he needs to find a way to bring home the bacon, and winning the occasional hot dog eating contest won’t cut the mustard.
Tony doesn’t have to wait long. He gets a job offer to be a driver for a doctor. When he arrives at Carnegie Hall for the interview, he’s surprised that it’s not a doctor’s office. It is, as it turns out, the apartment of Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an acclaimed pianist who is embarking on an eight-week concert tour, including several dates in the deep south. After some initial back and forth, Tony accepts the job.
This is where the “Green Book” of the title comes in to play. Essentially a handbook for “traveling while black” in the Jim Crow south, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a directory of dining and overnight accommodations where African-American travelers were welcome to stay. As Shirley’s driver, there were occasions on which Tony and the doctor were not staying in the same place.
A new twist on a road movie, the pair becomes better acquainted as they travel from New York to Pittsburgh to Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky and then deeper into the south, including North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Along the way they learn a great deal about the other. Each, in his own way, attempts to get the other to expand his limited horizons. Shirley, for example, expresses his concern over Tony’s diction, correcting him on several occasions, as well as his lack of finesse. When he discovers that Tony has been writing letters home to his wife and kids, Shirley offers his superior writing skills. Tony, on the other hand, who is unabashedly racist, is shocked to discover that Shirley has never eaten fried chicken. The opportunity to enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky provides one of the more comical scenes in the movie.
But the movie is definitely more serious than humorous. Shirley’s run-in with rednecks in Louisville is eye-opening for Tony who comes to his rescue. Shirley, who is gay at a time when it was even more dangerous to be a homosexual than it was to be black, gets into trouble with another man at a YMCA in Macon, Georgia. Tony, who is unfazed after years of working in nightclubs, bails him out of jail. One night in Mississippi, on the way to a gig in Alabama, the two are pulled over by cops in a “sundown town” (where blacks are expected to leave by sunset) and jailed, leading to the possibility of Shirley missing his gig in Birmingham. Released from jail after Shirley uses his lawyer phone call to ring U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, they face even greater discrimination upon their arrival in Birmingham. But, “Green Book” is a true-blue Christmas movie and the touching finale, which includes Tony being home in time to celebrate the holiday with the family as Dr. Shirley promised, is sure to warm your heart.
Ali’s performance is so good that he may find himself with another Oscar nomination. Mortensen, however, is a little disappointing, especially after his Oscar-nominated turn in 2016’s “Captain Fantastic”. “Green Book” also marks a big step forward for director Peter Farrelly, best known for fare such as “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber”.
Rating: 3.5 peaches