A more pedestrian movie revolving around a Southern road trip in a 1963 Cadillac you will not find. The first twenty minutes are spent setting up the character of our Italian driver/bodyguard. It is slow going.
Our driver is Tony Vallelonga ( Viggo Mortensen ). Mortensen is good, very good, as the rough-around-the-edges Italian family man, who teaches the erudite, black virtuoso pianist as much about life as he, himself, learns about culture.
The film picks up once we meet the PhD.( Mahershala Ali) who needs a driver/protector. We hear about Nat King Cole being dragged from the stage during a performance in the Deep South and beaten. We know that Tony doesn’t drink from the same glass a black man has used, even after it is washed. Eyebrows are raised when two black plumbers are in the kitchen with Delores, his wife. Out of a job, Tony rejects doing “ things” for the mob. Will he be able to retrieve his pawned watched, and pay his mortgage by playing road manager for a black classical pianist, who speaks eight languages?
The interview and the bargaining for compensation and job detail gets the film finally on track. Director Peter Farelly, Tony’s real son, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Currie have written the screenplay. It is some pretty shallow story-telling. Steinways, Cutty Sark, and homosexuality mark our musician with loneliness and cultural isolation. His “identity crisis” does not play well. Ali’s one tirade seems off point. Prejudices are detailed on all fronts. Hanover, Indiana does not fare well.
Race relations in the early sixties were as bleak as the decades before. The film’s title “ Green Book” refers to the compendium of motels, hotels, and eateries where blacks could re-energize without becoming frustrated by refusals to host their needs. “Vacation without aggravation” is the euphemism used.
Based on the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, the film
gives the uninitiated a glimpse into the discrimination and civil rights abuses suffered by many. Epithets like “coon”, “ greaseball”, ”spook” and “dago” fly.
Tony’s eating habits, his getting around rules, and his calling Chopin “ Joe Pan” are minorly entertaining. He dumps trash and places the bin over a water hydrant in order to park nearer to his venue. He spits pimento cheese tidbits into his napkin and places it back on the serving tray.
The letter writing sequences are cute to a point. Dr. Shirley helps in the romance and spelling department as Tony writes the letters requested by his wife, Delores
(Linda Cardellini). You will not be surprised by the doc driving, the policeman helping, or the second knock at the door. You may be surprised by the thirty second close-up of Baby Jesus’s face, and the call to then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The bromides that “ dignity always prevails” and “you never win with violence” drew my yawns. “ My world is blacker than yours” is a tad insulting in light of the Raleigh sharecroppers standing aghast at the black man being chauffeured.
The “Green Book”’s theme is really about growth, and the pleasant idea that if two people ( no matter how different) spend eight weeks together ( in truth a year and a half), relationships blossom and understanding ensues. This feel good transformation is a crowd pleaser with a pat ending. I am just not one of the crowd.