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Movie Review: In ‘Green Book,’ Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali Forge Friendship Amidst Ignorance and Segregation

CREDIT: Patti Perret/Universal Studios

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Director: Peter Farrelly

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Racist Encounters, But Not So Intense That They Require an R Rating

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide November 21, 2018

Is there any real living person with an appetite like that of Frank Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip”? This is a character who has taken to heart the advice to always do everything 100%, which when it comes to food, means to devour whatever he’s eating like it’s his last meal. Tony Lip was a real person who worked at the Copacabana in his early days and went on to be an actor in the likes of Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, and The Sopranos. When we meet a fictionalized version of Tony in the 1960s in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, he’s eating 26 hot dogs in one sitting to win a $50 bet and getting ready to be the personal driver to a black jazz musician who is going on a tour that will take him through the Deep South. I don’t know if the real Tony ate everything in sight the way that Viggo Mortensen-as-Tony does, but if this characteristic were not based at least somewhat in reality, it would be plainly outrageous. But for as over-the-top as Mortensen plays Tony, I can recognize something familiar in his joie de vivre, as I, for one, am pretty shameless. But even for me, folding an entire pizza pie in half to eat the whole thing at once is a bridge too far. (Although now that I think about it, I might do that if someone dared me.)

Much more universally relatable, despite being a much more idiosyncratic character, is Tony’s passenger, Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). He is stuck between so many worlds, uncertain of where he really fits in, but he does his best to project a true version of himself. In other words, he is like all of us. A classically trained pianist who would much rather be playing Bach and Beethoven, he accepts that he must rely on jazz to find himself an audience. But he is hardly a part of the mainstream, as he is barely aware of the work of contemporary black pop musicians like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin. Having been born in Jamaica and spent a good portion of his childhood training in Russia, he can barely relate to his fellow black Americans. And as much as he shares cultural tastes with his high society white audiences, they do not exactly consider him a peer, considering that institutionalized segregation means that he cannot eat alongside them even when he is their guest of honor. On top of all that, he is estranged from his family, leaving him precious little in the way of emotional stability.

The story of Green Book is how these two men find something fulfilling in each other over the course of miles on the road. But as heartwarming as it is, theirs is only one small tale in the face of the massive hatred that they lived through and that continues to exist today. Farrelly and his actors do not ignore this context (this context being “life on Earth”). That means that Tony and Don must contend with institutionalized racism and racist thoughtlessness and general thoughtlessness on their way to genuine friendship. Will telling their story make a difference in this misbegotten world? Who’s to say, but what is more certain is that it resonates in the moment, and honest companionship and open-heartedness is valuable wherever you can find it.

Green Book is Recommended If You Like: The friendships of Men in Black, Shrek, Lethal Weapon, etc.

Grade: 4 out of 5 KFC Buckets

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