Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) delivers another excellent performance as Dr. Don Shirley, a jazz musician in the real life drama directed by Peter Farrelly, “Green Book.” The film is heartfelt and powerful, even though it does gloss over the impact of the actual “Green Book”, a guide for “traveling while black” before the passage of The Civil Rights Act.
It is 1962 in New York City. The bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is out of work due to unexpected renovations. He has difficulty finding work and pawns a prized watch. Then he gets a call from a friend. A doctor needs a driver and the address is Carnegie Hall. Tony is intrigued. What doctor could live there?
He finds the tall, slender Don Shirley surrounded by artifacts. He needs a driver to take him to his shows and also an assistant to do his laundry and shine his shoes. Tony says a firm “No thank you.”
Shirley explains that he was picked for his muscle and his gruff manner. Tony refuses; he won’t be a maid. Shirley ups the wage and Tony agrees.
Shirley and Tony Vallelonga begin a road trip through a Jim Crow South. At first Tony bristles and squirms. He eats the sandwich that his wife (Linda Cardellini) had made for the musician and makes racist remarks. Shirley is unfazed.
Through the course of the trip, the two share details of their lives and become friends. Tony, though filled with racist ideas, sees Shirley as a person. He is struck by his sophistication and asks him for assistance in writing letters to his wife.
Though the film does not shy away from racism or violence at all, this is essentially a feel good “Odd Couple” film between two people from different backgrounds who learn to listen and laugh with one another.
Tony Vallelonga is out of step and impacting, yet his coarse bluntness is played mostly for laughs. The man evolves and matures and the virtuoso piano player gains a protector. Tony the lovable lug never fails to protect his friend.
The main element that shows through “Green Book” is its heart and spirit. The film slickly manages to evade stereotypes (aside from the chicken reference) by its empathy, patience and the strength of its characters and despite an ending that feels a bit too “Hollywood,” this film will have you cheering for two friends who shared meaningful experiences with one another, in spite of racism’s sick stupidity.
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