The title of “Green Book” derives from a period when African Americans often traveled at their own risk, especially in the Jim Crow South. Unwelcome in many restaurants, hotels and other public establishments, they even faced death in “sundown” towns, where they were warned to get out before evening, or else. In response, a postal employee named Victor Hugo Green created a guide designed to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” The Green Book was published for more than 30 years, finally ceasing publication in the late 1960s.
The pain, peril and murderous racism that made the Green Book a necessity of black life seems like unlikely fodder for a crowd-pleaser that plays like gangbusters. But “Green Book,” a spirited amalgam of buddy comedy, road movie, fish-out-of-water fable and accessible social history, is just that cinematic unicorn. As an inspiring and thoroughly entertaining chapter drawn from all-too-real life, it mixes authenticity and Hollywood schmaltz with ease that feels both relaxed and judiciously calibrated. Most winningly, “Green Book” puts two of the finest screen actors working today in a sexy turquoise Cadillac, letting them loose on a funny, swiftly-moving chamber piece bursting with heart, art and soul.
The actors in question are Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, who prove to be a superbly balanced team. Mortensen plays Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a Bronx bouncer who in 1962 is making his living at a New York nightclub and trying to avoid working as muscle for the local mob. When he loses his job, he makes ends meet by putting his prodigious appetite to use in a hot dog-eating contest, which even he, being slightly dimwitted, realizes isn’t a sustainable model. Eventually, he answers a call from a Manhattan musician looking for a driver and shows up at his would-be employer’s Carnegie Hall address ready to take anything that pays.
What he finds is a man named Don Shirley (Ali), a supremely elegant pianist and composer who greets Tony draped in regal robes, then conducts the interview from what looks like an ancient Egyptian throne. Shirley, a favorite of Park Avenue and other well-heeled precincts, has booked some dates throughout the South in a tour that will end around Christmas. Although his distinctive brand of bespoke, classically infused jazz is popular with white audiences, he’s not taking any chances: He hires Tony to act both as chauffeur and protector should any difficulties, embarrassments or less-than-enjoyable circumstances arise.
The ensuing journey unfolds much as the audience might expect: The slovenly, tough-talkin’ Tony and the quiet, impeccably mannered “Dr. Shirley” almost immediately begin to bicker about everything from the music Tony listens to in the car to the cigarettes he smokes between his incessant chatter. But “Green Book,” which was co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, turns out to be much more than “The Odd Couple” meets “Driving Miss Daisy.” Surely Nick’s own intimate knowledge of the real-life lead players helps lend “Green Book” its sense of groundedness, not to mention the distinctive characters of two larger-than-life men. What’s more, it makes sure to give the audience permission to laugh, even as the stakes of Shirley’s trip become dangerously high.
As might be expected, Tony and Dr. Shirley meet their fair share of physical danger in “Green Book,” but it’s the psychic blows that wound the most: Although at first the uncouth Tony may not understand Dr. Shirley’s genius at the piano — as well as his sophisticated sense of etiquette and comportment — even he can recognize the hypocrisy of applauding someone’s talent one minute, then relegating him to an outdoor lavatory the next. But it’s not as if Dr. Shirley is any more at home among the mostly black servers, bartenders and domestic staff that he encounters in a world where a man like him — black, brilliantly educated and, one scene suggests, gay — can find little if any purchase.
It will surprise no one to learn that both Tony and Dr. Shirley undergo powerful transformations in “Green Book,” which begins with a scene of Tony throwing out two water glasses used by black workmen hired by his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and which also includes a scene of Tony encouraging his ever-so-proper employer to eat a piece of fried chicken with his hands. If that image sounds horribly cringeworthy, it’s a tribute to director Peter Farrelly and to Mortensen and Ali that what could be a fatally misbegotten exercise winds up being unexpectedly warm and amusing.
Farrelly, best known for directing such comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” with his brother Bobby, has never been known as subtle, or for caring much about what his movies looked like. But “Green Book” is an exceptionally pleasant experience, both visually and aurally, photographed in rich period hues by Sean Porter and drenched in gorgeous music by both Shirley and composer Kris Bowers. It was Bowers, reportedly, who coached Ali in the finger movements that look so convincing in the film, especially during a fabulously boisterous interlude set at a hopping juke joint.
But all the technical prowess in the world wouldn’t be able to overcome iffy casting in a film that lives or dies by its two central performances. In that regard, Mortensen and Ali take ownership of “Green Book” early on and make it entirely theirs. Mortensen has always been an appealing, versatile actor, but here he discovers untold layers of humor (and belly fat) to lean in to Tony’s alternately grating and hilarious naivete. Playing off Mortensen’s expansive lack of self-consciousness, Ali is all controlled interior, communicating as much in a glance or a raised finger as with a pages-long monologue.
The cumulative result of so many things going for it is that “Green Book” fires on all cylinders, creating the kind of satisfying mainstream moviegoing experience that many observers thought Hollywood had forgotten how to make. There was a time when “Green Book” might have been the tale of a racist-with-a-heart-of-gold being redeemed by a too-good-to-be-true African American shaman or self-sacrificing paragon. No one is redeemed here, just given space to develop mutual respect and affection. The great success of “Green Book” lies in its modesty, and the straightforward way it recognizes seismic change in the incremental turning of a human heart.
PG-13. At Regal’s Gallery Place Stadium 14 and AMC’s Tysons Corner 16. Contains mature thematic elements, strong language, including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. 130 minutes.