When I saw Green Book‘s first trailer, I instantly drew comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy. With two actors whose work I’ve enjoyed of the years, I didn’t have to be oversold on how good this movie could be. In this type of film, the movie doesn’t work without a balance between the two main actors. Viggo Mortensen and his counterpart, Mahershala Ali, found the elegant, understated balance that made this film even more beautiful.
This Review is Spoiler-Free.
Green Book is based upon the true real-life friendship between Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who serves as the driver and bodyguard of classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is on a tour of the Deep South in the 1960s.
This movie finds an enjoyable balance between drama and comedy. The laughs were well-timed between Vallelonga and Shirley as they left New York and made their way south. The obvious economic divide was so clear from their first meeting that you didn’t even think about the racial divide of that difficult time in American history.
Viggo Mortensen has played many characters over the years; all brave or brutal, calculating and intelligent (my favorite is the Tolkien warrior king), but he’s never played a mook. It’s almost impossible to envision until you see the Danish-American actor as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. From the first scene where we are introduced to this rough-edged club bouncer. It makes you think him and Joe Pesci are distant relatives. Linda Cardellini is great in a small but pivotal role as Tony’s wife and their bond is a good undercurrent that doesn’t go forgotten. Viggo by far as the showiest role in this film that might end up putting him into contention for that ever elusive Oscar. When he falls on hard times, Vallelonga agrees to drive a musician through the Deep South, he has no idea what to expect.
Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley is a brilliant piano maestro, the complete opposite to Mortensen’s bada-bing character. Shirley is celebrated in the world’s finest private homes and concert halls – he’s performed twice for the sitting president and lives in a lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall – but he hasn’t even taken his show on the road below the Mason-Dixon. Upon their first meeting, he doesn’t quite know what to make of a bearish man like Tony.
Once the duo crosses the Mason-Dixon line, they have established a decent working relationship and respect for each other as they encounter the hard times of the South and their racial differences become more apparent. The script hits many of the beats that you’d expect. The bigotry the pair encounters ranges from politely insidious to outright, savage injustice; the odd-couple’s bonding inevitably becomes stronger, despite the picturesque fits and starts. The drama of the second act is balanced with well-timed laughs to keep the crowd smiling, despite what surrounded them.
It’s hard to overstate how charming and feel-good the overall film is, and how much both actors make the material shine. I also cannot overstate how well-timed this film is in today’s current social climate. In a world that seems to get uglier every day, the gentle heart and humanity of the film is a needed balm.