Can two New Yorkers share a turquoise Cadillac on a tour of the Deep South without driving each other crazy?
Apologies to the opening credits of the TV sitcom “The Odd Couple,” but that’s the pertinent question in “Green Book,” a different (yet familiar) odd-couple heartwarmer directed by Peter Farrelly of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” fame. A crowd-pleasing hit at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the movie may not be accurate history (welcome to the movies!). It may not even be particularly interested in one of its two main characters, for various reasons.
But with actors as wily as Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, plus a ringer we’ll get to a minute, the quality of the material matters less than usual.
In 1962, the African-American concert pianist and recording artist Don Shirley embarked on a concert tour of the Midwest and the South, chauffeured by Italian-American Tony Vallelonga. Better known as “Tony Lip” around the Bronx, and in the vicinity of the Copacabana nightclub where he worked as a bouncer, Shirley’s record label hired Vallelonga as driver. In many towns the performer was legally barred from staying in hotels wide open to whites. The AAA-style “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide to affordable lodging for black motorists traveling in institutionally segregated times, gives director Farrelly’s cheerfully fictionalized account its title.
To play Tony Lip, Mortensen bulked up considerably. When he’s behind the wheel of the ‘62 Caddy, it’s like watching a big car driven by a slightly smaller one. Mortensen, not known for broad or even subtle comedy (the movie favors the former), works hard at behaving like a semblance of a real person in a real place and time. Some of the details catch your eye, such as the way he fishes a Lucky Strike out of a half-smoked pack while doing something else, or his method of folding an entire pizza into a handy wiseguy-sized bite.
The movie’s Bronx sequences may not look or feel anything like anything within 500 miles of New York City (they shot the picture in New Orleans). But we’re not in the land of realism here. Farrelly works well with actors but Tony’s friends and family skirt one sort of caricature, while the Dixie racists making the road tour difficult for Shirley and The Lip edge toward another.
“Green Book” relies almost entirely on the interplay between Mortensen and Ali. It’s a car-based journey of discovery, begun on a note of mutual wariness, ending on an affirmative flourish of true friendship. The movie sets its chosen tone at the beginning, establishing Tony Lip’s ingrained, casual-seeming prejudice with lingering close-ups of Mortensen throwing away drinking glasses used by a couple of African-American repairmen working in the family kitchen. The movie charts one lovable lug’s enlightenment, while Shirley himself remains a remote, diffident enigma — the fastidious, uptight Felix to Mortensen’s Oscar Madison.
The movie’s lean toward Tony Lip and his universe is no surprise, given that the script comes from Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), director Farrelly and Brian Currie. On the other hand: The focus gives the fabulous Linda Cardellini (as Dolores, Tony’s wife) some welcome screen time. The actress lends easy warmth and honestly earned sentiment to the Bronx scenes, and when she, Ali and Mortensen finally share a scene in the finale, hearts will warm and tears will flow. Director Farrelly knows a narrative gold mine when he sees one. And he knows enough to stay out of his actors’ way.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Green Book” — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material)
Running time: 2:10
Opens: Thursday evening