Car-based jour­ney of dis­cov­ery

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Phillips Chicago Tri­bune

Can two New York­ers share a turquoise Cadil­lac on a tour of the Deep South with­out driv­ing each other crazy?

Apolo­gies to the open­ing cred­its of the TV sit­com “The Odd Cou­ple,” but that’s the per­ti­nent ques­tion in “Green Book,” a dif­fer­ent (yet fa­mil­iar) odd-cou­ple heart­warmer di­rected by Peter Far­relly of “Dumb and Dum­ber” and “There’s Some­thing About Mary” fame. A crowd-pleas­ing hit at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber, the movie may not be ac­cu­rate his­tory (wel­come to the movies!). It may not even be par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in one of its two main char­ac­ters, for var­i­ous rea­sons.

But with ac­tors as wily as Viggo Mortensen and Ma­her­shala Ali, plus a ringer we’ll get to a minute, the qual­ity of the ma­te­rial mat­ters less than usual.

In 1962, the AfricanAmer­i­can con­cert pi­anist and record­ing artist Don Shirley em­barked on a con­cert tour of the Mid­west and the South, chauf­feured by Ital­ian-Amer­i­can Tony Val­le­longa. Shirley’s record la­bel hired Val­le­longa — bet­ter known as “Tony Lip” around the Bronx, and in the vicin­ity of the Copaca­bana night­club where he worked as a bouncer — to serve as the driver. In many towns the per­former was legally barred from stay­ing in ho­tels wide open to whites. The AAA-style “Ne­gro Mo­torist Green Book,” a guide to af­ford­able lodg­ing for black mo­torists trav­el­ing in in­sti­tu­tion­ally seg­re­gated times, gives di­rec­tor Far­relly’s cheer­fully fic­tional- MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for the­matic con­tent, lan­guage in­clud­ing racial ep­i­thets, smok­ing, some vi­o­lence and sug­ges­tive ma­te­rial) Run­ning time: 2:10 ized ac­count its ti­tle.

To play Tony Lip, Mortensen bulked up con­sid­er­ably. When he’s be­hind the wheel of the ’62 Caddy, it’s like watch­ing a big car driven by a slightly smaller one. Mortensen, not known for broad or even sub­tle com­edy (the movie fa­vors the for­mer), works hard at be­hav­ing like a sem­blance of a real per­son in a real place and time. Some of the de­tails catch your eye, such as the way he fishes a Lucky Strike out of a half-smoked pack while do­ing some­thing else, or his method of fold­ing an en­tire pizza into a handy wiseguy-sized bite.

The movie’s Bronx se­quences may not look or feel any­thing like any­thing within 500 miles of New York City (they shot the pic­ture in New Or­leans). But we’re not in the land of re­al­ism here. Far­relly works well with ac­tors, but Tony’s friends and fam­ily skirt one sort of car­i­ca­ture, while the Dixie racists mak­ing the road tour dif­fi­cult for Shirley and The Lip edge to­ward an­other.

“Green Book” re­lies al­most en­tirely on the in­ter­play be­tween Mortensen and Ali. It’s a car-based jour­ney of dis­cov­ery, be­gun on a note of mu­tual wari­ness, end­ing on an af­fir­ma­tive flour­ish of true friend­ship. The movie sets its cho­sen tone at the be­gin­ning, es­tab­lish­ing Tony Lip’s in­grained, ca­sual-seem­ing prej­u­dice with lin­ger­ing close-ups of Mortensen throw­ing away drink­ing glasses used by a cou­ple of African-Amer­i­can re­pair­men work­ing in the fam­ily kitchen. The movie charts one lov­able lug’s en­light­en­ment, while Shirley him­self re­mains a re­mote, dif­fi­dent enigma — the fas­tid­i­ous, up­tight Felix to Mortensen’s Os­car Madi­son.

The movie’s lean to­ward Tony Lip and his uni­verse is no sur­prise, given that the script comes from Nick Val­le­longa (Tony’s son), di­rec­tor Far­relly and Brian Cur­rie. On the other hand: The fo­cus gives the fab­u­lous Linda Cardellini (as Do­lores, Tony’s wife) some wel­come screen time. The ac­tress lends easy warmth and hon­estly earned sen­ti­ment to the Bronx scenes, and when she, Ali and Mortensen fi­nally share a scene in the fi­nale, hearts will warm and tears will flow. Di­rec­tor Far­relly knows a nar­ra­tive gold mine when he sees one. And he knows enough to stay out of his ac­tors’ way. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Viggo Mortensen, left, as Tony Val­le­longa and Ma­her­shala Ali as pi­anist Don Shirley star in “Green Book,” set in 1962.

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