‘Green Book’ a simplistic, but enjoyable ride


Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book (2018)

During the Jim Crow era, African-American travelers in the South were unwelcome in many hotels, restaurants and even some towns after sunset. They were aided by a small, pamphlet called “The Green Book,” which published places where they could find friendly places to rest and eat.

Director Peter Farrelly (Step Brothers) uses this history as he steps into the drama world of film with his new movie “Green Book.”  With a Golden Globe for Best Drama, “Green Book” is an enjoyable and moving comedy about race and unexpected friendships that’s based on a powerful true story.

Tony Lipp (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer looking for work so he can provide for his Italian-American family in the Bronx. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black, wealthy, virtuoso pianist has an interesting job for him. Shirley is giving a concert tour in the Deep South and needs a driver and potential bodyguard to help him navigate the turgid waters of segregation.

The two leads create a hilarious buddy-comedy act in “Green Book.” Tony is loud, foul-mouthed and quietly racist, probably from his Italian upbringing (his family comes to keep an eye on Tony’s wife Dolores when two black plumbers come to the house for repairs.) Shirley is reserved and proper, he uses a lap blanket in the car and, much to Tony’s annoyance, has never eaten fried chicken. This unlikely duo has a lot to unpack as their polished green Cadillac putters further and further past the Mason-Dixon line.

From the synopsis alone it’s easy to guess what happens over the ensuing two hours. The elite Shirley lowers his guard and enjoys himself for once, and the irreverent Tony straightens up and fights for the rights of others. It doesn’t count as spoilers when it’s that predictable.

This approach is “Green Book’s” specialty. It doesn’t weigh itself down with too much depth and chooses to skim the surface of racism and Jim Crow with classic good versus evil, upstanding activist versus vile racist. The southern characters are mostly stereotypes, but their racism is still very accurate.

There are some moments where Ali and Mortenson bring the story to a higher caliber, giving their characters depth or showing some of the more complex aspects of life during this time. It’s these moments that give the film it’s sparkle and have launched it to critical acclaim.

Mortenson is virtually unrecognizable from his popular turn as Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings.” His loud, brash portrayal of Tony is nearly as unexpected as the dramatic physical change he underwent for the part. Ali gives a reliably stellar performance, regal and poised, but giving his character enough depth to grow.

The two together crackle, snapping quick retorts and one-liners, veering from hysterical to serious on a dime. Their dialogue is this film’s strength, giving even a shallow, perhaps at times misguided story a beating heart.

“Green Book” does have some issues, but none are more glaring than the obvious issue of the “white person fixing racism.” The media loves and praises these types of stories and “The Help” and “The Blind Side” are prime examples of their commercial and critical success.

In a year where there are more complex stories about race like “Blackkklansman,”  “If Beale Street Could Talk,” or even “Black Panther,” it seems like this type of story should be left in the past. It’s a simplistic take on an issue that can be examined and presented in better and more truthful ways.

Nevertheless, “Green Book” sets itself up as a cinematic classic with its hilarious, character driven plot. It’s a definite crowd pleaser and is getting buzz from the awards shows. At the end of the day, “Green Book” is nearly impossible to dislike, so sit back, relax, and enjoy a fascinating road trip with two brilliant travel partners.