Mortensen, Ali put ‘Green Book’ in over­drive

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY KEN­NETH TU­RAN

Con­sider this a warn­ing. You may be tempted to push back against “Green Book,” may be itch­ing to pro­claim it too pat, too ob­vi­ous, too much of a setup job. But re­sis­tance, as they say, is fu­tile. It’s deeply em­bed­ded in this film’s DNA to make us feel good, and, re­ally, what could be wrong with that?

Co-writ­ten and di­rected by Peter Farrelly, of all peo­ple, and “in­spired by a true friend­ship,” “Green Book” is a savvy and su­per-ef­fec­tive piece of pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment that un­ex­pect­edly walked off with the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val’s Os­car-pre­dic­tive Peo­ple’s Choice Award.

The film is a bit like “The Odd Cou­ple” joined to a 21st- cen­tury ver­sion of “Driving Miss Daisy,” with su­pe­rior act­ing by two of to­day’s top ac­tors — Viggo Mortensen and Ma­her­shala Ali — seal­ing the bar­gain.

Mortensen’s char­ac­ter, Ital­ian-Amer­i­can driver Frank An­thony Val­le­longa, known to all as Tony Lip, is full of self-sat­is­fied swag­ger, while Ali’s Ja­maican pas­sen­ger, Dr. Don Shirley, is a man of dig­nity, even hau­teur.

Both ac­tors are ef­fec­tive coun­ter­punch­ers, ex­pertly gain­ing strength from each other like tag team wrestlers on a tear.

Work­ing to­gether, they’re able to con­vince us that this hugely un­likely but re­al­ity-based friend­ship could ac­tu­ally have hap­pened ( Val­le­longa’s son Nick, who co- wrote with Brian Curry and Farrelly, pro­vided the bona fides).

Farrelly, best known for co-di­rect­ing low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor come­dies like “Dumb and Dum­ber” with brother Bobby, may seem a sur­pris­ing choice to di­rect a film that deals, even in a crowd- pleas­ing way, with as se­ri­ous a sub­ject as racism in Amer­ica.

But the best of the Farrelly come­dies, like 1998’s “There’s Some­thing About Mary,” un­der­line t he di­rec­tor’s in­stinct for the me­chan­ics of au­di­ence re­sponse — for know­ing where the but­tons are and how to push them — that stands him in good stead with this some­what more thought­ful ma­te­rial.

Tony Lip is the char­ac­ter in­tro­duced first, work­ing at Man­hat­tan’s Copaca­bana night­club in 1962, where his main du­ties ap­pear to be toss­ing re­cal­ci­trant pa­trons into the street and driving his boss af­ter work.

Back home in the Bronx, it’s clear that Tony loves his tol­er­ant wife, Dolores ( Linda Cardellini), who sighs and smiles when her hus­band risks the rent money by bet­ting on him­self in a hot dog-eat­ing con­test.

The twice Os­car-nom­i­nated Mortensen is an ac­tor who doesn’t do things half­way, and he gained some 40 pounds and a ton of self-re­gard to play an in­di­vid­ual nick­named for his abil­ity to BS any­one about any­thing.

Tony is also pre­sented as an obliv­i­ous racist, some­one who uses a va­ri­ety of ep­i­thets to de­scribe non-Ital­ians and has very much of an arm’s length re­la­tion­ship with other eth- nic groups.

In fact, in a qui­etly ugly mo­ment, when two African-Amer­i­can re­pair­men visit his apart­ment, Tony dis­creetly throws glasses they’ve drunk water out of into the trash.

“Green Book’s” plot kicks into gear when the Copa is closed for two months for ren­o­va­tions and Tony is des­per­ate for a job that doesn’t in­volve Mafia- re­lated en­forcer work.

He gets sum­moned to an apart­ment above Carnegie Hall where he meets Dr. Don Shirley, an in­di­vid­ual he’s never even imag­ined.

Whip-smart and so­phis­ti­cated, flu­ent in sev­eral l an­guages and holder of doc­toral de­grees, Dr. Shirley is also a gifted pi­anist with his own style who greets Tony Lip wear­ing a dashiki and sit­ting on an African throne.

Dr. Shirley, for rea­sons we even­tu­ally discover, is about to em­bark on a con­cert tour that will take him to the Deep South.

He needs not only a driver who can han­dle the brand new Cadil­lac Coupe de Ville his record com­pany is pro­vid­ing, but also a body­guard who has the kind of ver­bal and phys­i­cal skills Tony can de­liver.

There’s a lit­tle back-and­forth cul­ture shock be­fore Tony says yes (there’s no movie if he doesn’t) and, to help him out with lo­gis­tics, Dr. Shirley pre­sents a copy of the book that gives the film its ti­tle, “The Ne­gro Mo­torist Green- Book,” first pub­lished by Vic­tor Hugo Green in 1936 to help trav­el­ers in the seg­re­gated South find safe ac­com­mo­da­tions.

As the trip pro­gresses, th­ese two men un­sur­pris­ingly, but con­vinc­ingly, get on each other’s nerves, with the im­mac­u­late Dr. Shirley evinc­ing be­liev­able dis­gust at Tony Lip’s gusto for eat­ing fried chicken with­out ben­e­fit of plates, din­ing im­ple­ments or trash re­cep­ta­cles.

Also not un­ex­pect­edly, sit­u­a­tions arise when Dr. Shirley comes to ap­pre­ci­ate his com­pan­ion’s good heart and par­tic­u­lar skills, and Tony Lip gets more of a sense of the nar­row­ness of his ideas as well as the kind of Deep South dan­gers and per­sonal cru­el­ties a man of color had to en­dure.

Though a lot of this, such as a racist po­lice traf­fic stop in pour­ing rain, is ob­vi­ous, even pre­dictable, the in­tegrity of both ac­tors’ per­for­mances makes the lack of sur­prise less of a prob­lem.

Though Mortensen dom­i­nates the early scenes, Ali’s Dr. Shirley is fi­nally the more in­volv­ing char­ac­ter, and “Green Book” doesn’t hes­i­tate to take on the com­plex­i­ties of a man who de­spite Carnegie Hall ap­pear­ances does not feel fully ac­cepted in either the white world or the black one.

“What­ever you do, do it 100 per­cent,” Tony Lip says his fa­ther ad­vised him.

It’s a phi­los­o­phy both the “Green Book” pro­tag­o­nist and the film it­self have adopted, go­ing all in and win­ning us over in the process.

UNIVER­SAL PIC­TURES

Viggo Mortensen and Ma­her­shala Ali in “Green Book.”

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