Director: Peter Farrelly | 130 minutes | drama | Actors: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Don Stark, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Hudson Galloway, Gavin Lyle Foley, Rodolfo Vallelonga, Louis Venere, Frank Vallelonga, Don DiPetta, Jenna Laurenzo, Suehyla El-Attar
Tony Lip – aka Frank Anthony Vallelonga – worked for 12 years at the acclaimed Copacabana nightclub in New York during the 1950s and 1960s, hosting celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin. With such a well-known circle of friends, it is not surprising that he ended up entering the film world. He played tiny roles, but in classics like “The Godfather”, “Dog Day Afternoon” (both 1975), “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Donnie Brasco” (1997). His biggest role was as gangster boss Carmine Lupertazzi in the legendary TV series “The Sopranos”. He got his nickname “The Lip” for two reasons; on the one hand he always knew what to say to get something done from someone, on the other hand hardly a moment passed without shoving something to eat. Because food, that’s what Lip, who passed away in 2013, loved it. Not for nothing did he publish a book with a collection of his favorite family recipes, and persuade other Italian-American actors such as Danny Aiello and James Gandolfini to contribute to his book as well. This Tony Lip is the central character in the movie “Green Book” (2018). Even before Lip became an actor, during a period when the Copacabana was closed for renovation, he took on a driver’s job that would change his life forever.
In “Green Book”, Viggo Mortensen plays the role of Tony Lip, a rather maladjusted type with a small heart. Immediately in the first scene we see that he is not difficult to let his hands wave if necessary, because an uninvited guest is blown out of the Copacabana. When the club closes for three months, Tony has to look for a temporary job. Because of course he can’t let his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two growing sons down. The mob bosses in New York could use him well, but Tony prefers to get a bona fide job. Then he stumbles upon Dr. Shirley, who is looking for a reliable driver for eight weeks. That sounds like something to him. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), however, turns out not to be a doctor in the medical sense of the word, but a gifted concert pianist, and Afro-American moreover. He is touring the south of the US – which in 1962 is heavily burdened by racism – and is looking for someone who can drive him from one concert hall to another. Tony has quite a few prejudices about African Americans, but is fascinated by Shirley and desperately needs the money, so the two go on a road trip across the US. Shirley turns out not only to be a virtuoso on the piano, but also eloquent, intelligent and very civilized; actually he’s the complete opposite of Tony. Both gentlemen appear to have quite a few prejudices about each other, but by spending time together they get to know each other better and an unlikely friendship develops. Tony also discovers what it is like for Shirley as a black man in the racist South, where rich whites pay big bucks to watch Shirley play, but then deny him access to their restaurants, changing rooms and restrooms.
‘Green Book’, after the booklet that existed at the time, which described where in the south of the US you could go as a black person, was directed by Peter Farrelly, who we mainly know from the series of comedies he made with his brother Bobby. (including ‘Dumb and Dumber’ from 1994, ‘Kingpin’ from 1996 and ‘There’s Something about Mary’ from 1998). We don’t directly associate his name with awards and nominations, but with “Green Book”, Farrelly has delivered a potential Oscar winner. The film is in the running for no less than five Academy Awards (for both protagonists, original screenplay, montage and best film) and has already won several other prestigious awards, including three Golden Globes. For “Green Book,” Farrelly worked closely with Tony Lip’s close relatives, including his sons Nick and Frank. The film touches on themes such as prejudice, racism and friendship in a light manner and does this with a lot of humor. Viggo Mortensen gained the necessary kilos for the role and shows himself here in a way we rarely see him. As soon as he opens his mouth, and every time he puts something to eat in it, he laughs. Nevertheless, Mortensen manages to prevent Tony Lip from becoming a caricature. His character has enough integrity to forgive him even the most politically incorrect comments. Mortensen receives tremendous response from Mahershala Ali, who sees Dr. Shirley slowly but certainly let it thaw and eventually become the emotional center of this film with a short but powerful monologue drenched in despair and frustration.
Because as hilarious as Tony’s binges are – hot dog eating contests, folded pizzas, buckets full of fried chicken – there is a serious side to this movie too. And that extra layer gives “Green Book” the much needed depth. Although Farrelly stays safely within the lines and wants to keep his film attractive to the widest possible audience. The film is carried by the two very strong protagonists, who have a nice dynamic. Both Mortensen and Ali are given the space to shine. Of course, “Green Book” follows the beaten track and it could have been a bit sharper and more layered. But it is by no means as sweet as the thematically closely related “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989). Above all, “Green Book” is a heartwarming feel-good film that will make even the biggest cynic leave the cinema with a smile. Everyone’s friend who could well win the necessary Oscars.