Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a.k.a Tony Lip, is an out-of-work bouncer looking to make a few extra dollars to pay bills and buy Christmas gifts for his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and kids. He lands a gig working for African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The musician hires Tony as his chauffeur for a concert tour that will take them from Manhattan to south of the Mason-Dixon line. “You won’t last a week with him,” says Dolores. “”For the right money I will,” he replies.
The deal is simple. If Shirley makes it to every concert on the two-month tour Tony will be paid in full. “You better be home for Christmas,” says Delores, “or don’t come home at all.”
To help them navigate the trip they bring along the “Green Book: For Vacation without Aggravation,” a motorist’s travel guide to safe havens for African-American people travelling in the Jim Crow South. Together this odd couple—the plainspoken driver and the erudite concert pianist—journey into the south looking for, and finding, common ground. “Anyone can sound like Beethoven,” says Tony, “but your music, what you do, only you can do that.”
“Green Book” is a crowd pleaser of a movie. Playing it safe the film is content to skim the surface of the racism that lay at the core of the story. Instead it relies on the characters and situations to illuminate the horror of Shirley’s experience in relation to the colour of his skin. It takes its subjects seriously but places them in a formulaic story that plays out in a relatively predictable way. That’s not to say it isn’t moving or enjoyable, it just hits all the beats you might expect.
At its heart are Mortensen and Ali. As Tony, Mortensen side-steps most Italian American caricatures. He plays Tony as a kind-hearted chatterbox, loyal and quick with his fists. He loves his wife and kids but what makes him interesting is his ability to learn. He learns from Shirley, how to write a proper love letter and (AND THIS IS NOT A SPOILER) how to put aside ingrained prejudices and judge people for who they are. The “Lord of the RIngs” actor embodies the character, making him a likable conglomeration of cuss words, backwards attitudes and temperament.
Mortensen has the showier role but Ali provides the heart. Imperious—he first meets Tony while sitting on a throne of sorts—brilliant and deeply wounded, Shirley is a complex character. Whether he’s rolling his eyes at Tony ignorance—“It’s Orpheus and those aren’t children, they are demons”—or smiling graciously at the racists in his audiences, Ali owns it. Shirley begins aloof, as though we’re observing the character from the concert stage but Ali gradually adds layers of vulnerability, grit and grace. “You never win with violence,” he says after Tony has slugged a man in a racially motivated incident. “Dignity always prevails.”
“Green Book” probably could have hit a little harder but its message of unity, of creating bridges rather than walls, is a welcome one in these politically divisive times.