Nearly 30 years ago, “Driving Miss Daisy” told the story of an unlikely friendship between an elderly woman and her African American driver. While watching, audiences could predict easily that both characters would learn from one another, gain insight into the lives of one another, and ultimately end up in a meaningful friendship. Even with that formula, audiences loved the movie.
Fast forward to today, and audiences will once again see a driver, Tony Vallelonga, also known as Tony Lip, hired to drive concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley through the deep, Jim Crow South in 1962. This time, the tables are turned a bit: Tony, a former bouncer from the Bronx, is white. His employer, Dr. Shirley, a professional musician from Jamaica who lives in a palatial apartment above Carnegie Hall, is black. The two embark on a two-month trek, experiencing cultural issues with others and with one another.
From director Peter Farrelly, this time on his own without his brother Bobby (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “Hall Pass”), “Green Book” is sure to be touted as one of the year’s best films, even with some of the predictable elements I’ve mentioned above.
Viggo Mortensen as Tony is brilliant in a role that proves him to be one of the most versatile actors of our generation. We just can’t take our eyes off his much-publicized weight gain, his mugging and his constant “good-fella” type persona. The transformation we see on screen is portrayed with such meticulous detail that we have a hard time remembering other characters he has played, regardless of how memorable they were.
Equally mesmerizing is the performance of last year’s best supporting actor, Mahershala Ali, who plays the aristocratic, snooty Dr. Shirley. In a departure from his role in last year’s “Moonlight,” Ali portrays the arrogant “Doc” with incredible depth: at one point we see him sitting alone, portraying anger, sadness and isolation all at once. We watch as he masks his desperation and vulnerability with a forced, painful dignity.
The chemistry between the two actors is simply outstanding, moving, hilarious and important. They are wonderfully matched in these roles.
A well-placed supporting cast, including the outstanding Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife, Delores, is effective and authentic.
Audiences won’t see anything unusual or new. As I said, there are plenty of predictable moments. The stellar acting often outshines the dialogue,which is not necessarily a bad thing. A few bits are a little too warm and fuzzy or even trite.
However, the movie is so well put together and the performances are so phenomenal that it’s easy to look past the little irritations. Even this curmudgeonly movie critic will tell you he applauded at several moments, got choked up at the ending and told others it’s one of the best films he’s seen in a long time.
“Green Book” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language, racial epithets, violence and suggestive material. It opens Nov. 21 in theaters and runs 130 minutes.
My grade: A+