"There are two sides to me; one is a sort of a rat, a quiet introvert who sits alone in Chinese restaurants reading Private Eye, and the other is something which is almost precisely like a politician, somebody who works the room."-writer and film maker Bob Ellis
Set in 1962, the film follows Italian-American Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who is hired to chauffer brilliant African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali Mahershala) on a concert tour through the Deep South. (based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller: Honesty, dignity and courage are the themes of one of the best films of the year - an odd couple road movie in which Viggo Mortensen delivers a performance that is note-perfect. Based on the true story of a bouncer from the Bronx who is hired as driver to a black concert pianist on a tour of the deep South in the 60s, Peter Farrelly's film explores the unlikely friendship between the two men on a backdrop of racism. Mortensen is equally matched by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) in his portrayal of a cultured, highly educated artist lacking in street smarts. Together they are dynamite. The film is a revelation. I didn't want it to end.
Mortensen and Ali both play against type: if you had seen neither onscreen before, you could be forgiven for imagining the characters they play are indicative. To convince as a tough guy who drinks beer in one gulp, demolishes 26 hot dogs for a wager and eats his way through the entire movie, Mortensen has packed on the weight. Every little detail of the Italian family man who does not play by the rules is in place. His nickname is Tony Lip and he is almost boastful when admitting to being the 'best bullshit artist in the Bronx'. He talks incessantly and has an endearing sideways smile. His qualifications for the chauffeur job: an ability to handle trouble.
By contrast, Ali's performance as the celebrated genius Dr Don Shirley, (doctor of psychology, music and the arts) is contained: much of the action is internal. We can almost see him thinking, as he sits in the backseat of the silver blue Cadillac, recoiling in horror as his driver insists he tastes deep fried chicken for the first time. Being a genius is not enough: he has to change hearts. Both men learn from each other. Tony introduces Don to black music (Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin); Don schools Tony in the art of honesty and romance, changing his formerly gauche letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini, excellent) into poetry. Then the lessons become more critical, when the colours of the deep South penetrate through the niceties of social intercourse. The contradictions and paradoxes are shocking.
The joys of the film lie in the development of the relationship. The veneer peels away. Watch for the scene in which Don's very relevance comes into question: 'If I'm not black enough and I'm not white enough; what am I?' The situations become more and more precarious. The understatement of Tony's statement: 'I know it's a complicated world', when things unravel does not escape us. The dialogue is punchy and there are some wonderfully funny lines. And of course, there is the music: Don's transforming performances on the Steinway that uplift and erase the grubbiness of the racial slur. As for the final show, it does not disappoint. Nor does the ending. But before then, there are some welcome surprises.
Don't miss this film. It epitomises all the things to which we aspire. It is perfect. In case you were wondering, the Green Book was the black motorist's handbook - to help avoid the pitfalls of the time.
Review by Andrew L. Urban: He could play his fabulous music for them in the posh dining room of a club in the deep South, but he couldn't dine with them. This and other such moral brutalities make us gasp today, but for Dr Don Shirley (Ali Mahershala) these were everyday events. That was racism and we should be very wary of using that label in contemporary political disagreements, lest we soil the truth.
Green Book, a handy guide for black people, helps travellers to find accommodation around the South that would accept them. It serves its segregating purpose in the hands of Shirley's chauffeur (and Man Friday) Tony (Viggo Mortensen) who was at a loose end after an angry customer torched his workplace, the famous Copacabana club in New York - in revenge for the club losing his much loved hat with its sentimental value. I won't spoil the mischievous irony involved here, but the newly introduced odd couple set off on an eight week road trip of musical engagements, much of it in the deep South where coloureds are still second class citizens - at best.
Tony is probably Shirley's direct opposite in every way, and a bit racist to boot. He is vulgar and careless, with a talent for bullshitting, doesn't hold back from punching people who annoy him and can barely spell. Shirley is sophisticated, erudite, educated, eloquent and multi-lingual with a spectacular talent for the piano. The proximity washes off on both of them, of course, but not without friction. And not without the deeply moving revelations about Shirley's inner confusion about his real self, hidden by his ultra cool exterior.
Both Mortensen and rapper/actor Mahershala give us profoundly anchored characterisations, showing two imperfect people grappling with a flawed world.
Then there is the great music: the car radio is full of black music stars like Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, while Shirley's performances with his trio are all a knockout.