As a genial story of racial healing, the 1962-set Green Book may feel to some modern viewers like a movie that might have been released back then — moving a little too easily toward solidarity and uplift.
This trepidation is understandable, given current events. Any contemporary movie implying that the mantle of racism can be tossed away like a bad sweater runs the risk of being regarded as dishonest.
So what, if anything, does Green Book — a buddy comedy — have to offer the more hard-nosed audiences of today?
I think the question is answered somewhere by the first-rate performance of Mahershala Ali, Oscar winner for Moonlight, who stars in the fact-based Green Book as musician Don Shirley, whose complexity is obviously thrilling, and fun, for Ali to play. Shirley was what you might call an American original, save for the fact that he was born in Jamaica. There, he was spotted early on as a piano prodigy. He was raised in Florida, trained on the piano in Leningrad, and tutored in the classics, composing for the London Philharmonic at age 19, performing for the Boston Pops and at Carnegie Hall, playing with Duke Ellington, turning to forms of popular music at a time when opportunities for a black virtuoso were constrained.
The music he then created was too innovative for the classical crowd, too formal for jazz, and yet ingeniously of his own design. If he was not popular, his talent was recognized, and he was one of a few dozen artists actually granted living space above Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, where he lived at the center of the cultural universe even as he remained remote and removed from it as an artist whose talent who didn't quite fit in anywhere.
No wonder Ali wanted this role and poured so much into it. If code-switching is difficult today, imagine how hard it must have been for Shirley, possessed of other attributes that would have made it difficult to find cultural acceptance in that era (or, indeed, today).
Then, as now, his record company didn't much care. It sends him on a concert tour (with a bassist and cellist who formed his trio) of the South, where Nat King Cole had been assaulted just a few years earlier. So Shirley looks for a driver who can also provide brass-knuckle security. He ends up with Anthony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), also known as Tony Lip because he talks too much. Vallelonga is a bouncer at the Copacabana looking for work. He's good with his fists, he knows how to spot and thwart trouble, and he's a racist.
Director Peter Farrelly (yes, the guy who brought us There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber) does a quick, deft sketch of Tony in early scenes, framing him as a hustler who plays angles, puts out fires, and discards the drinking glasses of the black contractors who remodel his kitchen. As Tony, Mortensen struggles with the accent, but he captures Tony's watchfulness. He doesn't like taking orders from Shirley, but he's intrigued by him — by his music, and also his loneliness and dislocation.
The men are opposites in almost every way, and they repel more than attract in early scenes. They occupy different poles of race, refinement, education, class, and personality, the latter causing the most trouble as the trip commences. Tony won't shut up, and his unfiltered babble offends the reserved Shirley, but it's soon too late to turn back.
A breakthrough occurs when Shirley observes that Tony writes as poorly as he speaks and begins to help him with letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini, in a small but vivid role). Shirley starts to look upon uncouth, untutored Tony as a kind of project — stepping in Cyrano-style to recast Tony's dull letters home as heartfelt expressions of love. It's a funny inversion of Driving Miss Daisy, and beautifully played by both actors.
This leads, of course, to bonding, which affects Tony as he sees his own bigotry enshrined as institutionalized behavior in the South. He starts to see things through Shirley's perspective, and is a little ashamed of himself. Some of this is on the nose, and schematic, and the movie plunges bravely into crosscurrents of race and class with more bravado than finesse.
But Ali and Mortensen make the friendship feel real, using some unexpected tools from Farrelly's kit. His comedic instincts help the movie tiptoe through some dangerous cultural minefields — I'm thinking specifically of a bit when Tony becomes fixated on the idea of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky. Shirley sits in the backseat with a look of horror, but his disdain gives way to curiosity (or perhaps plain old hunger) as the seductive fragrance of chicken and biscuits fills up the car. What follows is a graceful slapstick of eating and sharing, informed by the in-character gestures of both actors.
It's the movie in capsule form — you wonder about the nourishment, but it's hard to resist.