Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Viggo Mortensen
Director: Peter Farrelly
If you’re betting in your office Oscar pool, put your money on Green Book for best picture. The unexpected smash that won the audience awards at the elite Toronto and Middleburg film festivals, it’s very much the feel-good movie of the year, a wish-fulfillment fantasy with a far-fetched story that's actually based on a real one. It's set in 1962, when the Deep South was so dangerous that there was a popular guidebook, published from 1936 to 1966, called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which listed the hotels and restaurants where black people could safely stay and eat.
A famous black jazz and classical concert pianist named Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, 44, from Moonlight) went on tour, and the Green Book kept him safe-ish, but just in case, he hired as his bodyguard and driver the beefy bouncer from New York’s iconic mafia-owned nightclub the Copacabana, Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, 60, from The Lord of the Rings), so named because of his talent as a B.S. artist. The guy was an inspired liar — and if he couldn’t talk himself out of a tight spot, he could back it up with muscle and a gun. The real-life Tony was so colorful he starred as New York mob boss Carmine Lupertazzi on The Sopranos, and also appeared in The Godfather, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Donnie Brasco. The odd couple — a snooty, rich gay black artiste and a Bronx Italian American mafioso, became fast friends for life.
The film was written by Tony's son Nick with Brian Currie and the director, Peter Farrelly, 61 (known for There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, but now an A-list drama director, too).
Expect Oscar nominations for the two stars: Ali captures Donald’s piano genius and haughty defensiveness, and Mortensen nails Tony’s good nature and amusing cluelessness. Temporarily unemployed and needing the driver job, he tells Donald how woke he is: “My wife and I had a couple coloreds over for drinks!”
What Tony doesn’t say (and we just saw) is that they were black maintenance men fixing his sink — he reluctantly served them water, then dumped the glasses they drank from in the trash.
The road trip on which Tony’s racial consciousness and Donald’s class consciousness get raised is reminiscent of Driving Miss Daisy (and also other Oscar best picture nominees: The Help, Hidden Figures, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Blind Side), only less sentimental, even though it still shamelessly plucks arpeggios on your heartstrings. Tony, who likes to drive while smoking and chomping an entire pizza folded over, is scandalized to hear snooty Donald confess that he’s never heard Aretha Franklin or Chubby Checker: “I’m blacker than you are!” he says. Ridiculous, yet it stings, since Donald’s identity is doubly troubled — a black playing for white audiences, a wealthy man without many black neighbors in his posh penthouse atop Carnegie Hall, gay but acting straight for dear life.
Mortensen gets most of the funniest lines, but Ali has the most moving cri de coeur speech. For both of these marvelous characters, the South is like a foreign country, and so is the new two-man world of tolerance that they’re inadvertently creating together.
The two guys’ odyssey is knit together with a subplot about hyperliterate Donald dictating Tony’s all-of-a-sudden incredibly romantic letters to his wife (the wonderful Linda Cardellini, 43, from ER) back home in the Bronx. It’s all so calculated to soothe your fears and make you feel good about America (and yourself!), you can’t stop from leaping to your feet to applaud.