Green Book

 

            1962.  Brooklyn.  The bouncer at the Copacabana, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is laid off for a couple of months due to the club's renovations.  After entering a hot-dog eating contest and pawning his watch, Tony knows he has to take some kind of job in the interim, because he has a wife and two kids to support, and the rent's due.  So he agrees to be a driver.  The employer is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a concert pianist going on a two-month tour of the Midwest and Deep South.  Tony Lip says he won't be a valet, but he will also serve as bodyguard, if needed.  And yes, unfortunately, those services were needed, also.

            Dr. Shirley's musical group, including a bass player and a cellist, played to well-heeled audiences in formal wear.  Dr. Shirley, though classically trained, would normally perform in more of a “pop” fashion----think Trans Siberian Orchestra rather than Chopin.  But certainly not Motown.  Dr. Shirley is also determined to keep his dignity, and not reduce himself to caricature, like eating fried chicken and collard greens.  Tony Lip at first just plays dice with the other drivers, but eventually develops a grudging admiration for Dr. Shirley's music.  He's also willing to receive help from Dr. Shirley in writing letters home to his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and even occasionally acquiesces to diction lessons, though his first response is “What's wrong with the way I talk?”  Dr. Shirley also encourages Tony to get rid of the cursing, which isn't easy for him, and the smoking, which is even harder.

            You can see where this is going.  The two men, as opposite as can be, begin to have a respect for one another, and then, slowly, to have an effect on each other.  Dr. Shirley, for his part, learns to loosen up just a little, at least in being willing to try fried chicken.  Tony now willingly opens doors and carries bags.  He also uses resourcefulness to get them out of jams.  Once, in a bar, he manages to defuse an ugly situation that had already turned violent.  He rescues Dr. Shirley when he wanders into some place he shouldn't have, at least in the Deep South in the 1960's.  But Tony Lip doesn't judge.  He says he learned working in bars in Brooklyn that the world is a complicated place.  Meaning that he makes allowances for people who aren't like him.  Dr. Shirley is appreciative of the acceptance, but hardly knows has to accept it.  “Green Book” refers to the “Vacation Guide for Coloreds” that was published in the 1950's, as a guide for knowing which hotels and restaurants would accommodate them (and by inference, which would not).

            Yes, we see some ugly racism, and we shudder at it.  We see homophobia, and we shudder at that, as well.  But mostly, what we see is a burgeoning friendship that transcends boundaries of class and race, and matures into a mutual acceptance and affection.  The performances of both Ali and Mortensen are notable in their subtleties.  Director Peter Farrelly stops short of caricature, but still makes us glad that we aren't living in such prejudicial times any more.  Or are we?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association