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Great performances drive ‘Green Book’

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On first glance, you might think that “Green Book” is fairly typical awards bait. It’s a movie about an unlikely relationship crossing racial divides in the 1960s, a story that can’t help but accrue nominations if it’s executed with the least bit of skill and finesse.

This film feels very much like a throwback, a movie inspired by real-life events that is content to be driven by the immense talent of its lead performers. And while one can argue that its treatment of race is simplistic in spots, it still offers up a few challenges. It is thoughtful and funny and heartbreaking; a hell of a compelling and emotionally engaging story.

“Green Book” is all that and more. It has Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali leading the way (both are proven Academy darlings; Mortenson has two nominations and Ali won one for his role in 2016’s “Moonlight”). It’s a period piece that allows for some real flexing in terms of both performance and production. But when you look behind the camera, that’s when things start looking a little more atypical.

Peter Farrelly directs. Yes, that Peter Farrelly – the one who alongside brother Bobby reinvented the gross-out comedy. Not only did he direct this movie, he co-wrote and co-produced it as well. It seems weird, I know, but here’s the thing: he has done exceptional work here.

In the early 1960s, Tony Vallelonga (Mortenson) – better known to his friends as Tony Lip – is living in New York City with his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini, “Hunter Killer”) and their two kids. He does whatever he needs to do to make ends meet; he’s working as a usher/bouncer at the Copacabana. But when the club has to shut down for renovations for two months, Tony is left scrambling for work. When he gets a call from a buddy about a driving job, he decides to check it out.

It turns out the gig is a two-month stretch driving piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) to shows all over the South. This being the early ‘60s, there are some real issues with a white man driving a black man. In an effort to help, the record label gives Tony a copy of “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” The book – which gives the film its title – is a guidebook to help African-American travelers find hotels, restaurants and the like that will allow their presence.

Tony is a man whose attitudes about those different from himself are, shall we say, unsophisticated. He has some distinct ideas about who Dr. Shirley – and by extension, all black people – might be. As you might imagine, as the two men spend more and more time together – and as Tony begins to understand just what this tour means to all involved – their relationship deepens.

These two men – men from drastically different backgrounds who experience the world in drastically different ways – manage to find common ground. There’s not a lot of it, but the attitude and personality of each man influences the other, bringing both to a much better comprehension of the world around them. All the while, they make their way from venue to venue, hoping only to complete the tour and head home for Christmas.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Green Book” sounds overly sentimental. The whole midcentury white/black friendship angle has been tackled and tackled and tackled again. And to be honest, the blossoming of the relationship between Tony and Dr. Shirley should come off as saccharine and false – too often, movies like these wind up with a whiff of “and that’s how we solved racism” about them.

Yet Farrelly and company largely avoid that feeling of disingenuousness. They don’t dodge it completely; you’d be hard-pressed to tell this kind of story without at least a few overly forced on-the-nose moments. But there are ONLY a few, which speaks not only to Farrelly’s directorial acumen, but also the work done on the screenplay (Tony’s son Nick grew up to be a screenwriter; he based the story on interviews with Tony and Dr. Shirley, as well as letters that Tony sent Dolores from the road); you can really feel the connection to the story. There’s an inherent optimism that, if pressed any farther, would undercut the narrative impact; instead, the proper balance is struck.

Of course, while the filmmaking team does excellent work, there’s no disputing that the performances deserve at least as much of the credit. Viggo Mortenson is a tremendous talent; in his hands, Tony Lip is brash and bold, a man whose hard edges mask a soft heart. He is a chatterbox and unrelentingly physical; even driving a car, he’s perpetually in motion. That kineticism strikes a beautiful balance opposite Ali, who imbues Dr. Shirley with a mesmerizing stillness. Every movement is measured and deliberate; he is a coiled spring, a font of potential energy waiting to release. It is only at the piano (which, by the way, if he doesn’t actually play, then whoever made it look like he can deserves a raise) that he allows that energy to surface. The two of them together are simply magnificent. The rest of the ensemble excels – Cardellini in particular – but this is very much the Viggo and Mahershala show.

What “Green Book” does is choose to address one small sliver of a much larger narrative. It doesn’t delve as deeply as it might have, but that’s OK. Instead, it gives audiences an opportunity to watch two of our most talented actors ply their trade together, mining the pleasure and pathos that can come from unconventional friendship and putting forth a pair of 2018’s finest cinematic performances.

[5 out of 5]

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