At the very end of last year, having waited five weeks for “Green Book” to open in Williamsport, I finally gave up and drove all the way to State College to see the film, which stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
It was worth every mile.
In fact, if I’d seen “Green Book” before composing 2018’s “best of,” it would have taken the top spot.
This sensationally entertaining movie is very loosely based on the true story of Tony Vallelonga, a blue-collar bouncer who in 1962 chauffeured black pianist Don Shirley during a concert tour through the deep South -- smack in the middle of the civil rights era.
Fresh from his ethnocentric Italian enclave in the Bronx, Tony has much to learn from the more cultured musician, especially about how it feels to be segregated not only from mainstream culture, but also from one’s own (the erudite Dr. Shirley simply doesn’t fit in with blacks of that time period).
Yet as a full-blown Italian-American, Tony has experienced racism of his own -- and with his working-class background, he has some things to teach Shirley as well.
These ideas are explored with exhilarating vividness and clarity; don’t be surprised to see an Oscar nom for the script -- co-written by Tony’s son Nick, who, along with a few other Villelongas, has a small role in the film.
Well-deserved nominations will also go to Ali and Mortensen, as well as director Peter Farrelly. Indeed, Farrelly -- who co-wrote the script -- emerges here as a top-tier director after a string of funny but low-brow comedies (“Shallow Hal,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”). So it shouldn’t be surprising that “Green Book,” while an emotional powerhouse, is also laugh-out-loud funny.
Poor Tony is something of a dim bulb, and half the time he can’t pick up on what Shirley wants to tell him. When, for example, the pianist criticizes his driver’s earthy diction, Tony responds: “If they don’t like the way I talk, they can go take a s---.”
It says much for Mortensen that despite Tony’s ignorance, prejudice and occasional belligerence, we really like him, and the friendship that springs up between such different men is truly heartwarming. Perhaps the best thing about “Green Book” is that all of its emotions -- its tears, its outrage and its humor -- are earned, and not just a result of superficial manipulation.
For his part, Ali gives us a man whose self-assured wisdom often peels back to reveal fear and loneliness, making his unexpected friendship with Tony all the more affecting. (Ali, however, did not do his own piano work; the actual performance is by young black virtuoso Kris Bowers, which was then convincingly composited together with footage of Ali.)
Though the storyline is simple, we are swept headlong into Don and Tony’s odyssey, climaxing at a chic restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, which refuses meal service to Shirley even though he’s playing there later in the evening.
The question of whether the men will break their lucrative contract over this -- and whether they can then make the long drive back to New York, where Tony has promised his wife he’ll be home for Christmas -- generates an emotional pull that is as potent as it is surprising.
But then, that pretty much describes the whole movie.
directed by Peter Farrelly
Run time: 130 min.
* * * * (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for language and some violence