Did “Green Book” deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
That’s the question swirling in Hollywood almost the minute it was announced.
Was the film too much like “Driving Miss Daisy,” an earlier Oscar winner, or did it follow its own path?
Whatever the argument, it is entertaining, largely because Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are so good at creating a friendship.
Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a New York tough guy who agrees to chauffeur an acclaimed pianist through the Deep South. Because it’s the 1960s and racial barriers are still evident, Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), the pianist, needs someone who can also serve as bodyguard.
Shirley’s goal, of course, is to show many of the bigoted white folks how wrong their perceptions are. Still, that doesn’t mean Tony and Don don’t encounter plenty of trouble.
“Green Book,” in fact, is almost a road map of pitfalls. In one town, Shirley can’t eat in the same dining room as the people he’s going to entertain. In another, he can’t use the restroom. Director Peter Farrelly checks them off, one by one.
And yet, Mortensen and Ali make this seem so surprising, so accidental, largely because they’ve given their characters depth. Mortensen, in particular, makes sure every move, every moment rings true. When he introduces Ali to the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken – in Kentucky, no less – “Green Book” has one of those heartwarming moments. More follow, but the film doesn’t attack racism head-on, it shows how one man became enlightened and another found a new friend.
Linda Cardellini does a nice job as Vallelonga’s wife – the woman who stays at home while he’s on the road for two months. She gets letters from her husband, letters that are frequently ghost-written by his boss.
“That’s pathetic,” Shirley says when he hears some of the patter. He helps Vallelonga spice it up and make the letters worth receiving. In time, they become rallying cries for her friends.
Still, Shirley isn’t without his faults. Vallelonga comes to his defense several times and shows him the error of his strident ways.
Farrelly uses music to the film’s advantage, helping set the scene and give us a taste of the man behind the jazz hybrid.
Ali looks believable when he’s playing (Farrelly shows him at the keyboard several times); he’s even more touching when he’s riding in the back of the car. Regal, detached and above his circumstances, he paints a vivid picture of Shirley’s lot in life.
Mortensen, meanwhile, digs into all aspects of his character’s persona – the accent, the weight, the gestures – so effectively, you know him immediately.
The one-two punch is hard-hitting, even though the movie isn’t. “Green Book” glosses over aspects of the story, but it leaves a solid impression of friendship.
Mortensen and Ali (who won Best Supporting Actor) are the reason why.