How’s this for a road trip setup: a world-famous black classical pianist goes on a concert tour of the U.S. – including the Deep South – with a chunky bouncer from a New York night club who wouldn’t know Chopin from a cutting block.
It’s 1962, before the Civil Rights Act, when Jim Crow laws restricted where black people could eat, drink, sit, shop and walk – and which bathrooms they could use.
In Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” Dr. Don Shirley (Mahevshala Ali), a tall, multilingual, patrician-looking musical phenomenon who can play anything from Tchaikovsky to pop, is in his upstairs-at-Carnegie Hall digs in New York, interviewing for a driver/bodyguard/factotum for both help and protection on the tour.
Tony Lip – a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana, needs a job for a few months while the club he works for is closed for renovations – walks in. Tony isn’t any old gringo, he’s an Italian-American with a big appetite, a big mouth, a short fuse and two ready fists.
It’s a perfect setup for — how shall I put it? — an interesting (not to mention eventful and sometimes scary) trip.
“Green Book” is, in filmspeak, “inspired by a true story,” so don’t take everything you see here as gospel. But Jamaica-born American Dr. Don Shirley surely did make that risky tour, and Tony’s son advised on the film, so you can trust at least the basics.
“Green Book” is largely a standard road-trip flick – except for two things: the explosive racial element and the extraordinary performances of Mortensen and Ali. And the fact that these two are about as disparate as two people can be.
The title comes from a book that was published annually by a New York mailman called “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which listed places black people could stay, eat, sit, shop and walk.
They create quite a public stir, motoring through the South (and trying to dodge the cops) in that turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Shirley in the back seat like a proper passenger.
But the development of their private relationship is easily as fascinating as the problems they encounter are frightening.
Mortensen not only packed on 30 pounds for the role; he also mastered the gait, Italian American accent and attitude of a Bronx bouncer. It’s a brilliant performance.
The Oscar-winning Ali (Best Supporting Actor for “Moonlight”) is equally fine as the supremely talented Dr. Shirley, who but for his race might have had a dazzling career as a classical musician. Stravinsky once said of Shirley, “His virtuosity is worthy of Gods.”
But he was advised early on to stick to pop and jazz because white audiences wouldn’t accept him playing classical music. He mostly did that, though it must have pained him to be so limited after his debut performance at 18, playing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Boston Pops. There is a certain sadness about Ali when Shirley sits down to play pops.
This Odd Couple is odder than most, and thanks to both actors, a fine script and Farrelly’s unintrusive direction, “Green Book” is one of the year’s best films.
PG-13 – for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.