Although it feels like a film from the 90s, Green Book retains an enjoyable charm fuelled by two top performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershela Ali.
Set in 1962, Viggo is the gruff Italian American nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga who overcomes his reflex racism to get hired as the driver to an imperious jazz musician called Dr Don Shirley (Ali) who lives above Carnegie Hall.
Tony is to drive Don on a concert tour of the Deep South and they use the Green Book to identify safe spots for ‘negroes’ to eat and stay in the segregated, racist southern states. Of course, the rich white folks welcome Don to play for them, but he still has to use servants’ entrances.
Over the course of their journey, the odd couple will develop respect and even love for each other, with Tony overcoming his racial prejudices while Don helps Tony pen romantic letters to his wife back in Queens (Linda Cardellini). They both have to learn lessons, to thaw their characters and meet in the middle.
They do so beautifully but predictably and that is to say somewhat unbelievably. And mainly it’s because Don’s a brilliant musician, which means he can’ be all bad (Tony loves Aretha Franklin and fried chicken, Don doesn’t), while Tony has a romantic heart if you get to it.
While Viggo and Mahershala play their roles with great skill and likeablitiy, Don still has to trade in dignity to make himself palatable, a bit like pioneering Sidney Poitier had to do in In The Heat of the Night over 50 years ago (and throughout his career). Mahershala does dignity brilliantly, but surely he’s capable of so much more, too, and should be allowed to let loose in a movie soon?
So you can – and I did – enjoy Green Book for the acting and the music (Don Shirley is worth rediscovering as an artist) but it’s a film that feels a bit square, a bit out of date, and doesn’t quite warm the heart as much as it thinks it’s doing. My Dad will love it, which is a good thing, but racism is one issue about which we an ill-afford to be old-fashioned these days. Directed by Peter Farrelly, there’s something about Green Book, something I don’t quite trust.