“Green Book” tells the story, "based on real events," of a trip made by Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, as driver and bodyguard for classically influenced black jazz pianist Don Shirley on a 1962 tour through America's segregated South, a politically-charged topic to say the least. Yet in its eagerness to offer a tonic for our nation's increasingly fraught racial environment, the film tones down its politically-charged subject until it's little more than an odd-couple road movie. The result is a 21st century film about race with a viewpoint that doesn't appear to have evolved since the period in which it's set, a time of quaint, self-congratulatory portrayals of racial relations like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?”
The film's greatest strengths and weaknesses come via it's central characters. To play "Tony Lip," Viggo Mortensen has bulked-up considerably and delivers a larger-than-life caricature of the big galoot-with-a-heart-of gold: a loud, chain-smoking self-proclaimed "bullshit artist." Oh, and he's racist to the point that he tosses drinking glasses in the trash because they were used by black people.
Mahershala Ali's (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”) portrayal of the refined and affluent Dr. Shirley is less broad but still frustratingly shallow, largely due to a failure on the part of the screenwriters to view him as more than a foil by which to measure Tony's personal growth. The screenplay, written by Tony's son Nick Vallelonga with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly, presents Tony, despite his blatant racism and loutish behavior, as more relatable than the punctilious, demanding Shirley. And it is through Tony's eyes that we view their relationship.
So it should come as no surprise that in this telling, Tony introduces Shirley to black culture by way of musical artists such as Chubby Checkers and Aretha Franklin ("These are your people, Doc!" he scolds) and fried chicken, because to a racist, fried chicken epitomizes black culture. It is Tony, too, who acquires the titular Green Book, the guide to African American-friendly food and shelter in the States, despite the fact that any black American of Shirley's education and experience would have been well aware of it.
As the pair make their way through the Jim Crow South, they come upon the sort of casual and violent bigotry to which Tony's pales in comparison. And more than once, Tony rescues Shirley from the dangers that surround him. And for his trouble, besides being paid, Tony gets Shirley's help composing, in Cyrano Cyrano de Bergerac fashion, love letters to his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini).
Still, Ali captures the intelligence, wit, and frustration of a man desperately trying to maintain his dignity in a world that overtly denies it. Some of Ali's most powerful scenes are those that unfold as Shirley sits alone, silently reflecting on doubts, regrets, and fears that this movie, frankly, can't be bothered with (a scene revealing Shirley's homosexuality is introduced purely as another threat from which Tony can play savior).
That's not to say that director Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly Brothers of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There's Something About Mary” fame, doesn't mine some genuinely amusing moments from this mismatched pair. But these laughs, like the Tony's wokeness, come far too easily, creating the dangerous illusion that American racism is little more than an amusing relic from a distant, less enlightened time.