Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book (Photo: Universal)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Peter Farrelly
STARS Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
The full title of the handy guide that aided African-American travelers during the Jim Crow era is The Negro Motorist Green Book. But since that would make for an unlikely marquee moniker, the name of the movie is simply Green Book.
The guidebook — a compendium of hotels, restaurants and the like that were safe for blacks journeying through this country — is referenced so sparingly throughout the picture that it almost qualifies as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, no more interesting to the audience than the uranium-filled bottles in Notorious or the airplane-engine schematics in The 39 Steps.
Instead, it’s the human dimension that drives this factually based movie with as much purpose and dedication as Tony Vallelonga drives Don Shirley through the Deep South. A racist New York bouncer, Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to serve as chauffeur to Shirley (Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), a Jamaican classical pianist who bravely embarks on a tour that takes him through the more dangerous and openly prejudiced areas of the country in the early 1960s. As they spend ample time in each other’s company, Tony learns to accept his employer’s differences, thus allowing him to grow as a human being.
Yes, it’s yet another movie in which the raison d’etre of a black character is merely to allow a white man to feel better about himself – note how the film (co-written by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga) completely adopts the POV of its Caucasian protagonist, with Shirley’s background only called upon when a monologue is required from Ali. Yet within that predictable context, Green Book is an accomplished and engaging picture, with director Peter Farrelly (best known for creating such raunchy comedies as There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin with his brother Bobby) easily commingling soft laughs and hard-hitting drama.
The picture’s greatest strength rests in the dynamic performances by Mortensen and Ali, both of whom add enough interesting shadings to turn what could have been a simplistic black-and-white tale into something incorporating no less than fifty shades of grey.