This fascinating, true story of an unlikely friendship begins with Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an elegant, educated Jamaican-American classical pianist who lived in an apartment above Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall.
In 1962 when his record company sends him on a concert tour of the Deep South, Dr. Shirley hires a gruff, gluttonous, street-wise bouncer from the Copacabana nightclub to be his driver/road manager.
Known as “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen) because his real name of Vallelonga was difficult to pronounce, Tony is an admittedly racist Italian. Married to Dolores (Linda Cardinelli), they live in the Bronx with their two kids and extended family. Even though this job will take him away for two months, it’s a good payday – and he’ll be home for Christmas.
So chain-smoking Tony hits the road in a turquoise Cadillac with starchy, stoic Dr. Shirley. Along the way, they discover much about one another, overcoming their personal differences while facing the inevitable humiliations and indignities of racial prejudice.
After many years of collaborating with his brother Bobby on grossed-out comedies (“Dumb and Dumber” franchise, “Something About Mary”), this is Peter Farrelly’s first attempt at directing solo, and he does a dandy job, working from an astute, character-driven script by Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son) and Brian Hayes Currie that ignites the honest chemistry between Mortensen and Ali.
The title refers to Victor Hugo Green’s “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book,” published annually from 1936-1966 to inform black travelers where they could safely eat and stay overnight.
Kudos to cinematographer Sean Porter and production designer Tim Galvin for authenticating the bleak intolerance of the Jim Crow era – and to Kris Bowers, who composed the score and rerecorded Shirley’s arrangements for the soundtrack.
FYI: Recognized as a child prodigy, Donald Shirley grew up in Pensacola, Florida. Although he was known as Dr. Shirley, his degrees were honorary, recognizing his combination of classical, jazz and pop music.
Although comparisons with “Driving Miss Daisy” are inevitable, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Green Book” is an inspiring, uplifting 8. It’s heartfelt drama.