The recent credits of Peter Farrelly — from Dumb and Dumber to The Three Stooges — are not those of a director heading in the direction of an Oscar bonanza.
Yet his new movie Green Book is on the short list for a best picture nod and is almost certain to earn an acting nomination for Mahershala Ali (he already took home gold for Moonlight). He plays pianist Don Shirley in Farrelly's take on the true story of the musician's tour through the South in the early 1960s, chauffeured by hired muscle (Viggo Mortensen) who is a good driver but also, as it happens, a racist.
It's billed as a major change in tone for "gross-out" comedy maestro Farrelly (There's Something About Mary), but I'm not so sure, and I teased the director by asking why it took so long to do a remake of Kingpin — his career-making buddy movie about a streetwise hustler managing an Amish bowling prodigy. It's Green Book in another form — two men from different worlds who bond while on the road.
"I think that maybe there are some people who might not, for whatever reason, want to go to a movie about race, but everybody wants to see a good buddy movie. And Green Book is in that category. But it's also more than that," said Farrelly. "And I also think it's a movie about race, but done in a way that hasn't been done before. You hear a lot about the trope of the white savior, or the black savior [the so-called Magical Negro], but this is different territory. In a way, you could say they save each other."
Green Book is the story of the friendship — one that would last a lifetime — that developed between Shirley and the North Jersey man known as Tony Lip (full name: Anthony Vallelonga), a bouncer at the Copacabana who takes a job driving and guarding Shirley while he tours the South with a musical trio in 1962 (Shirley fused classical music and jazz, and his unique sound is part of what makes the movie specific and authentic).
Tony "saves" Shirley with his fists and his street smarts, and "that's what he was hired to do," Farrelly says. "What Shirley does is more profound. In a way, he saves Tony's soul."
How? By forcing Tony to look at his own unexamined biases and beliefs.
"I think Tony's a typical Northern racist, meaning that he doesn't see himself as racist but doesn't question anything, like why he's willing to leave things the way they are, even if there is injustice around him," Farrelly said. "Then he gets down South, and he sees it institutionalized. You can't eat here. You can't go there. You can't use this restroom. And he starts seeing that it's completely [messed] up, especially when he sees it through the eyes of Don Shirley, who is a guy that he's come to admire."
Mortensen, who plays Tony, said Farrelly found ready humor in the Odd Couple contrast between the "fussy" Shirley and the uncouth Tony but went deeper to forge a more profound connection.
"It's a very uneasy relationship at the outset. It's one against the other, different men, different experiences, different temperaments. And then, in very subtle ways, you see it become about these two men against the environment they find themselves in. And from that shared sense of purpose, they create enough space to learn from each other, to help each other," he said.
Farrelly's favorite scene has Shirley and Tony Lip in a men's store, picking out a suit that the white salesman — following store policy — refuses to sell when he realizes it's for Shirley.
"You can see the frustration in Tony's face, but you also see that he realizes the guy selling the suit is him. That's he's really no better than that guy, the guy who's not questioning the way things are."
Most of the major, key events in the movie are true — the erudite Shirley really does help Tony write love letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini), and both men ended up in jail after Tony slugged a racist cop. The amazing circumstances of their subsequent release from jail are also fact-based.
More to the point, the friendship they forged on the highway was real (the movie was co-written by Tony's son Nick, and per Shirley's wishes, he kept the story private until after the musician's death) and lasted a lifetime.
Farrelly's own road to Green Book was remarkable. He's working for the first time without brother Bobby, not by choice, but because Bobby was grieving the death of his son, who died from a drug overdose. Then the Farrellys' sister died suddenly in pre-production. He made the movie in a kind of state of shock.