It’s 1962, and at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York, Italian American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is working as a doorman/bouncer. Known as an ace exponent of BS – and also for being very handy with his fists – Tony finds himself in a bit of a fix when the club is unexpectedly closed for renovations. How is he going to support his loving wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and his two sons (one of whom is destined to grow up to be a Hollywood scriptwriter?)
Salvation comes in the form of an unexpected job offer. Celebrated musician, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), is planning to embark on a three month tour of America and, since he intends to appear in several venues south of the Mason Dixon line, he needs somebody to drive him – somebody who can handle himself in a tight spot. Tony seems like the logical choice.
But there’s a fly in the ointment. Tony, you see, is a racist. Not a confederate flag-waving agitator or anything like that, but a man who chooses to drop a couple of drinking glasses into the trash after they’ve been used by black workmen who do some work in his apartment.
However, he’s also a pragmatist. He needs a job and this one will pay well, provided he gets his client to every single booking, so off the two men go in a hired Cadillac, using the titular Green Book to locates those rare hotels that are actually prepared to admit black guests.
On their travels, the two men’s relationship gradually develops into mutual respect and, as Tony witnesses the humiliating travails that Don has to undergo in those Southern states, the more he begins to understand how wrong he’s been for all these years. Here is a country where the man who has been booked as the star turn at a swanky establishment is unable to dine in the restaurant or even use the same toilet as the other (white) guests.
Of course, this could so easily become trite and over sentimental – but the script, written by Nick Vallelonga, successfully walks a perilous tightrope over the potential pitfalls. It is often downright hilarious and, when it needs to be, suitably heartfelt. Peter Farrelly (yes, that Peter Farrelly, the one who wrote Dumb and Dumber!) handles the direction with perfectly judged restraint. Mortensen, who has beefed up almost beyond recognition, is terrific as Tony, a man whom I initially dislike intensely, but who gradually works his way into my affections with his brutish attempts at humour.
It’s Ali, however, who is the real standout here, managing to imbue his effete character with an affecting vulnerability. Don, it turns out, is a stranger both to the white world in which he plies his trade and the black one, of which he ironically has little experience. Sitting in his swanky apartment above Carnegie Hall, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one in which Tony introduces him to the music of Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin – and then to the dubious delights of Kentucky fried chicken. I should also add that Linda Cardellini makes the very most of her limited screen time as Dolores, imbuing her character with real warmth.
Of course, this being based on a true story, there have been some rumblings of discontent, mostly from Don Shirley’s surviving relatives, who claim that the friendship between the two men has been wildly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. This may be true but, whatever the realties of the situation, Green Book is nonetheless a terrific film that never loses momentum, despite a running time of two hours and ten minutes.
It fully deserves its five Oscar nominations. Go and see this, if only to remind yourself of how recently the horrors of segregation held sway in the American South – and, of course, to watch those two knockout performances.