Dateworthy? “Green Book”
Is “Green Book” worth a holiday date night to the movies? Yes!
This movie is a funny and touching true-life tale of a secretly racist white man who was hired to drive and be a bodyguard for a famous African-American pianist on his tour of the early-1960s Deep South. The film has lots of heart, great performances, and a surprising amount of laughs. Better yet is a positive portrayal of a large and spirited Catholic family. It’s a certain Best Picture contender and an instant classic.
We’re living in a nation that might be more divided than it has been outside the Civil War. This true-life tale about bringing people together might just be the kind of movie we need most right now. Thankfully, the new film “Green Book” has arrived. It takes viewers on a journey through the 1960s South that features great performances, snappy dialogue, terrific music, and a story that is as timely now as it was more than 50 years ago.
The film centers squarely on two lead performances. Viggo Mortensen plays a New York City bouncer with a boisterous Catholic, Italian-American family who calls himself Tony Lip. Mahershala Ali as a rich African-American pianist named Dr. Don Shirley. Shirley lives a refined but very lonely life in a swank apartment above Carnegie Hall. The year is 1962. Shirley has become a superstar performer in the Northern states. But he’s determined to break through in the South with a tour that will take him into some of the most racist hotbeds in the nation.
It’s like a race-flipped ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ – and that’s a good thing
Shirley knows that if a black man is pulled over while driving through many corners of the South, the consequences could include arrest, a beating, and even death. He needs a tough white guy to be his driver and bodyguard on the eight-week run of shows. The shows feature Shirley and the two other white members of his jazz-classical combo playing for white elites. Southerners treat Shirley great at the shows but make it clear he’s looked down upon whenever he’s off the stage.
Tony has long been a scrappy bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub. But now he needs to find work to make it through the holiday season, since a wild brawl he helped start shuts the hot spot down for two months of renovations. Tony harbors the discreetly casual racism common in seemingly open-minded whites of the era. He is shown discreetly throwing out two glasses in his home after seeing that African-American workmen drank from them.
Forced to bond together while on the road, Tony learns to loosen up and love Shirley. Tony also grows in a special appreciation for Shirley’s stunning piano playing abilities. Shirley, meanwhile, learns to loosen up and give fried chicken a shot. He also learns the looser wild stylings of piano-playing rockers Little Richard and Chubby Checker. On a deeper and more touching note, Shirley teaches Tony to have higher life standards for himself and helps him craft eloquent love letters to his wife that reinvigorate his marriage.
“Green Book” is an inspiring tale of people striving to be better
There are troubling moments throughout the journey as the men contend with racism in various forms. Shirley turns out to have a deep-seated secret of his own. But this is a movie filled with goodness of spirit and a rich heart. The film shows good people striving to do better. It also affirms the universal allure of great music to transcend one’s boundaries and bond across all manner of cultural differences.
There is also a subtle appreciation of the great American landscapes and the appreciation of the simple things that make this country so special. Viewers see Tony’s boyish eagerness to have Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky. Mortensen and Ali deliver masterful performances that are almost certain to be Oscar contenders this year.
Tony’s Catholic faith is established early in a home with prominent crucifixes and filled with family prayer at the dinner table. Aside from the low-key racism he has to learn to overcome, he is positively portrayed as a good man with bedrock values.
But the real surprise of “Green Book” is the man who directed it. Bobby Farrelly spent 20 years working with his brother Peter as the kingpins of raunchy comedies. He presented the planet with gross-out comedy classics including “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Kingpin.” But as audiences’ tastes finally matured and veered away from their risqué fare, Farrelly realized the need to reinvent his career or watch it slip away.
His reinvention here is splendid. The film reveals Farrelly’s gift for the full range of human emotion and the ability to find frequent laughs as well as chuckles and well-placed drama. “Green Book” might seem like race-flipped “Driving Miss Daisy” crossed with an interracial “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But those are two timeless classics, and very good company indeed.
Plot line: 10
Overall: 10 out of 10!
Carl Kozlowski is a Catholic comedian, film reviewer, and journalist who is also the founder and co-owner of the podcast station www.radiotitans.com in Los Angeles. He reviews movies for the Catholic News Agency as well as the Christian site Movieguide.org, but has also worked with secular outlets including the Pasadena Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Esquire. He has also produced and hosted comedy shows for the LA Catholic Archdiocese's charities and performed at some of the nation's top clubs and with top comics including Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. He strives to find the way to work with both Christian and secular audiences in all his career paths.