Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. 
Courtesy Universal Pictures

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Stellar Acting Makes ‘Green Book’ A Smooth Ride

Despite its cornball touches, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen shine as a 1960s jazz pianist and his hired muscle.

You know an actor’s in the groove when a simple grunt conveys not only an entire character arc, but a movie’s essential meaning. Such a moment comes late in Green Book, and it’s one of a thousand things to savor about the performances in this film.

The groan emerges from the beefed-up body of Viggo Mortensen, playing a Bronx wiseguy named Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip). It’s 1962, and Tony has been hired by a black jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), to act as chauffeur during a concert tour. But Tony’s duties are not merely to drive a car; as a nightclub bouncer and a guy who knows his way around a brawl, it’s understood that Tony may have to provide protection for Shirley when the trip ventures into the American South.

After having already experienced the humiliations of staying in segregated motels and being asked to use the outhouse at the home of an affluent white family where he is the guest of honor, Shirley tries to enter the restaurant at a Birmingham hotel. Tony, seated at a table, sees the maitre d’ holding up a hand, and it’s clear Shirley is going to be asked to eat elsewhere. That’s when Tony gives forth with his groan. It’s partly the effort of wrenching his bulk from the table and getting to his feet, but the sound also carries the exasperation at injustice and the disbelief at human bigotry. Good acting isn’t just about showboating speeches, about also about tiny vocal inflections and precise body language. Mortensen’s got it nailed.

Beyond its acting, Green Book is a film of good intentions and well-aged cheese. The cringeworthy opening is worrisome: Our introduction to Tony’s Italian-American community is played with the delicacy of a high-school production of Goodfellas. When Tony meets Dr. Shirley—an erudite fussbudget who keeps an apartment above Carnegie Hall—the movie finds firmer footing. Director Peter Farrelly (yes, of the Dumb and Dumber Farrelly brothers) has fashioned Green Book—whose title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, the mid-century publication that helped black tourists find safe places to travel in the United States—primarily as a buddy comedy, despite the racial subject. Tony Lip is a racist who needs to learn about black people; Don Shirley is an effete egotist who needs to loosen up and enjoy life more. It will not surprise you that the two men learn lessons from each other and become friends in the process.

What might surprise you is how skillfully entertaining this process is, even when the film flirts with seriously bad taste. When Tony teaches Shirley how to enjoy fried chicken, many alarm bells of racial stereotyping go off—but the sequence shrewdly sets up a parallel scene in which the same stereotyping gets cruelly shoved in Shirley’s face. I don’t know whether that incident happened, but Green Book is based on a true story (script by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son), and the real Vallelonga and Shirley remained friends until they died in 2013.

However much I rolled my eyes at its cornball touches, I have to admit that the film generates a great deal of goodwill, due to its smart pace, bright colors (cinematographer Sean Porter is a Puget Sound native), and the Mortensen/Ali double act. Ali won an Oscar for his electric performance in Moonlight, and he’s equally good here, although in a different, reserved way. Mortensen is 40 pounds heavier and a million times more exuberant than usual, a crass motormouth with a firm sense of justice. These characters are thin, but the actors fill in the outlines with masterly craft.

Green Book

Now Playing | Rated PG-13

More in Film

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.

Taron Egerton (Robin) and Jamie Foxx (John) take another crack at the classic in Robin Hood. Photo by Larry Horricks
The Arrows Miss Their Mark in ‘Robin Hood’

The legend’s latest rendition can’t overcome its modern smirky tone and bland lead actor.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. 
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Stellar Acting Makes ‘Green Book’ A Smooth Ride

Despite its cornball touches, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen shine as a 1960s jazz pianist and his hired muscle.

Image by Drew Struzan/Disney
Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

Get in the festive spirit at home with these beloved seasonal films.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Photo courtesy Netflix
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Wagon Train of Dark Mischief

The Coen brothers’ new anthology seves as a glorious ode to Westerns’ dusty death.

At times, the actors in Outlaw King are hard to tell apart under the mud, furs, 
and filthy mullets. Courtesy Netflix
Coming for the Throne

‘Outlaw King,’ the Chris Pine-led 14th century epic about the First War of Scottish Independence, signals Netflix’s attempt to conquer the Oscars.

Big-screen Queen via Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Not Quite A Killer Queen

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ hits some musical high notes, but the Queen biopic largely plays it too safe.

Screaming and Streaming

A selection of the best horror movies you can stream at home this Halloween.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) returns to once again square off with Michael Myers in the new ‘Halloween.’ Photo by Ryan Green/Universal Studios
Still Killin’ It

Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he… Continue reading