Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip
Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley
Linda Cardellini as Dolores
Don Stark as Jules Podell
Sebastian Maniscalco as Johnny Venere
Dimiter D. Marinov as Oleg
Mahershala Ali plays a jazz musician who confronts the racism of his driver, played by Viggo Mortensen, in a warm but tentative real-life story
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are two excellent actors outclassing their material in this amiable, feelgood entertainment, inspired by a true story. Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a 1960s nightclub bouncer from New York who got a job as personal driver and minder to African-American jazz musician Don Shirley (Ali) on a tour through the Jim Crow south – armed with The Green Book, a guide to hotels and restaurants hospitable to black people.
The movie, in fact, has its own green book, negotiating subjects and areas where it needs to tread carefully. Class and race aren’t the only issues – there is also sexual identity, which the film touches on once and then moves on without the principals ever saying another word about it.
In real life, Tony became a show business figure, acting in Goodfellas and The Sopranos; he died in 2013 and his son Nick is this film’s producer and co-screenwriter, with Peter Farrelly directing. It’s a standard-issue heartwarmer, a liberal white/black tale like Driving Miss Daisy or the recent The Upside. (There are some eerily close resemblances to the latter film, including a moment in which the servant must teach the master about Aretha Franklin.)
Tony’s job is to cure Don of his snobbery and emotional frigidity, and Don must cure Tony of his racism and ignorance – although this half of the equation is fudged. In an initial scene, Tony puts a couple of glasses in the bin because his wife has let two black workmen drink out of them. But the level of fanatical racism this implies pretty much vanishes when Tony meets Don. So their road trip to self-discovery begins, and we hold our breath for when the white good-ol’-boy racists inevitably show up, or for when Shirley wishes to use the white bathroom at those grand places where he has been booked to play.
Vallelonga’s nickname is “Tony Lip”; he tells Shirley this is because of his reputation as a bullshitter. Shirley’s surviving relatives have evidently suspected some “lip” in this film, which appears to erase them from the story in the service of exaggerating his redemptive friendship with Tony.
Well, it’s a handsomely made and watchable picture and there is a real warmth in Ali and Mortensen’s performances.
Review by Peter Bradshaw, Guardian