‘Green Book’ is a powerful story with two powerhouse Oscar-worthy performances

 By Jonathan Shuping

November 24, 2018

What do you get when you combine Mississippi Burning, The Shawshank Redemption, and Driving Miss Daisy? The answer is Green Book, and if that sounds amazing to you, well, that’s because it is.

Based on a true story, Green Book boasts two of the planet’s greatest actors. Viggo Mortensen is Tony Lip, an uneducated nightclub bouncer from in the Bronx. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a classically trained concert pianist. When Dr. Shirley hires Tony, thanks to the latter’s reputation for possessing a natural ability to “handle trouble,” they embark on an unforgettable road trip for Dr. Shirley’s concert tour through the Deep South.

Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley courtesy of Universal Pictures

Helping them navigate their journey is the titular Negro Motorist Green Book, a real-life travel guide published by Victor Hugo Green for African Americans visiting the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. It listed establishments where they would not be refused service; places they could stay, places they could eat, as well as places to avoid. Like BlacKKKlansman earlier this year, Green Book takes place over 50 years ago but still feels topical in the current volatile, racially-charged climate of America. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “Just look how far we haven’t come.” There’s even a scene concerning the use of a bathroom that, of course, takes place in North Carolina.

Not only are both Mortensen and Ali at the top of their game, they’re both in roles unlike we’ve ever seen them before. Viggo is normally a chiseled, unflappable hero, but his Tony Lip is an overweight windbag and an abrasive, belligerent racist. Mahershala usually plays a character who is charismatic and self-assured, but as Dr. Shirley he showcases not only a pretentious rigidity but an afflicted vulnerability and a tortured spirit. Both characters have different emotional outlets to deal with their troubles and their rage. For Dr. Shirley it’s the drink. For Tony it’s overeating and violence. Dr. Shirley is worldly, a picture of cultured sophistication. Tony has never ventured far from the five boroughs. In fact, when Dr. Shirley mentions his concert tour heading South, Tony asks, “You mean like Atlantic City?” The two characters are polar opposites and the chemistry between the two leads couldn’t be more magnetic.

Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga courtesy of Universal Pictures

As different as they are, both men feel out of place on this pilgrimage. Tony is out of his element amongst the upper-class Southern aristocrats and Dr. Shirley is not only made to feel like he doesn’t belong by the pompous white people he’s entertaining, the impoverished Southern black folks he encounters also look at him like he has three heads. It’s this shared bond of unbelonging where their unlikely friendship begins to form.

Green Book marks the first foray into drama for director Peter Farrelly. Yes, of the Farrelly Brothers, the duo behind comedy classics like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Ironically, as Ali recently recounted during an interview, the original script, co-written with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony Lip’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga, was actually much more of a serious, straightforward drama. It was the two typically dramatic leads who improvised many of the comedic moments on set.

Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley courtesy of Universal Pictures

Make no mistake. Green Book may be a drama, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious. There are certainly moments both heartwarming and heartbreaking but the dialogue offers up comedy at a laugh-a-minute rate that never let’s up. Some punchlines are so good that they keep coming around again and again, with each new layer being funnier than the last, like an inside joke shared between the viewer and the movie. The bulletproof bada-bing Italian family dinner scenes are reminiscent of those classics in Moonstruck or Goodfellas.

Awards season is in full swing and Green Book should definitely be on Oscar’s radar. A powerful story and two powerhouse performances make this crowd-pleaser a surefire bet for a hefty family-style serving of nominations this winter.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5

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