MOVIE REVIEW by Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Inspired by a true story, “GREEN BOOK” takes place in 1962 and follows Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a white, Italian American New York City bouncer who takes a temporary job driving black concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he travels throughout the Midwest and the Deep South on a concert tour. The movie’s title refers to a (now historical) guide for what Tony calls “traveling while black”: The Green Book is a directory of restaurants and accommodations that cater to African Americans throughout the segregated South. As the vulgar, working-class, and admittedly racist Tony and the incredibly well-educated, intelligent Dr. Shirley get to know each other on the road, they challenge stereotypes and grow to form an unlikely friendship. But the farther into the South they travel, the more they’re forced to deal with everything from Jim Crow laws to hate crimes.
Mortensen and Ali both give fabulous performances in this feel-good road-trip drama that’s part buddy comedy, part history lesson, and part social commentary on friendship and race. Director Peter Farrelly, best known for raunchy comedies like There’s Something About Mary, brings out the humor in Tony and Dr. Shirley’s interactions; he allows the actors to shine in completely opposing ways. Mortensen, who reportedly gained more than 30 pounds for the role, immerses himself in showy Bronx bravado, while Ali is a picture of nuanced restraint, with plenty of emotion simmering beneath the surface. Both portrayals are award-worthy, as are Ali’s musical performances (he went through extensive piano training to pull them off).
It’s not easy to revisit a time in history when gifted black artists could entertain all-white crowds but not sit or dine among them — or even use the same bathroom. Dr. Shirley refuses to lower himself via vulgarity or even by listening to popular music (he can’t tell Aretha Franklin from Chubby Checker), and he fully understands that the moment he steps off stage, he’s just another black man to the white audiences who moments earlier applauded his talent. While Tony isn’t in the role of the dreaded “white savior,” Green Book’s story is more about him than Dr. Shirley, who’s infinitely more self-aware — and also more of a mystery. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that Dr. Shirley’s personal life isn’t explored via more than a couple of references to his estranged brother and a failed marriage and one poignant monologue about not fitting into either white or black society. Especially considering that viewers meet nearly all of Tony’s large Italian family, including his more open-minded wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), to whom he writes (with help from Dr. Shirley) increasingly poetic love letters from the road. Really, the entire movie is a love letter of sorts — to a friendship that’s a reminder that the world needs more empathy and human connection … not to mention mind-blowing music.
Parents need to know that characters get beaten and threatened (including with a shotgun), there’s a fistfight, and two people are handcuffed after being caught engaging in sexual activity (nothing sensitive shown). There’s also quite a bit of language (including “s–t,” the “N” word, and more) and drinking/smoking. But the film’s messages about empathy and the danger of prejudice and stereotypes are important and thought-provoking. And the story is a timely reminder of how, just a few decades ago, there were whole parts of the country where segregation kept African Americans from fully participating in civic life.
In theaters November 16, 2018. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini Director: Peter Farrelly. Studio: Universal Pictures Run time: 130 minutes MPAA rating: PG-13, thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material