Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony / Side by side on my piano keyboard / Oh Lord, why don’t we?
Cultural veterans of the early 1980s will recall—as much as they might prefer not to—the lyrics of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s chart-topping ode to interracial fellowship, which, it’s safe to say, was not a career high point for either artist. That song’s facile moral architecture is shared, to a considerable degree, by the director Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, the story of a white man and a black man—the latter a pianist—bonding on a road trip through the Deep South in the early 1960s. (How much did I want to come up with a way not to cite Driving Miss Daisy in the first two sentences of this review? Very, very much.)
The good news is that Farrelly—half of the fraternal duo that brought us intermittently brilliant comedies such as There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene—has done a nice job with this fairly simplistic message film, most particularly by casting Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as his two principals. First-rate execution can’t solve all of a film’s problems, but Mortensen and Ali offer a reminder that it can solve an awful lot of them.
The film is, as they say, based on a true story. It takes its title from a guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book, that explains how to “travel while black” in the South. Mortensen plays Tony Lip—the nickname is a reference to the character’s verbosity, not the distinctive scar Mortensen suffered in a teenage encounter with a barbed-wire fence—an Italian American working stiff from the Bronx whose job as a bouncer at the Copacabana has gone on a temporary hiatus due to renovations at the club. When we first meet him, he is depicted as so racist that he throws away two glasses that had been used by the black workers who fixed the floor of his kitchen. (This way, you see, his inevitable “evolution” will be that much more dramatic.)