Great performances save Book
Whenever a film is based on a true story, certain liberties are taken for a variety of reasons. Events are compressed because of time considerations, two or three people may be combined into one fictional character, and a bland ending may be shaped into something a bit more dramatic and palatable. Whether they be “incredible,” “inspiring,” “triumphant,” “touching,” “untold” or “unbelievable,” these “fact-based,” “based on,” “inspired by” or “suggested by” stories are a version of the truth that hopefully adheres to the spirit of what happened as it engages and entertains.
Inspired by a true friendship, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book compresses, alters, tailors and manipulates just as much (maybe a bit more) than any other film in the fact-based genre, sometimes going so far to provide a spoonful of medicine so its obvious message can go down that it may elicit an eye roll or two from the more discerning (cynical) viewer. Still, there’s no denying the story at its center is an intriguing one driven by dynamic performances from its two leads.
In 1962, bouncer Tony Lipp (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself between jobs when the club he works at is shut down for renovations. Realizing he can’t make ends meet by constantly engaging in eating contests (the guy can really put it away!), he interviews for a unique position. Jamaican-American musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) has decided to tour the Deep South with his trio and requires a driver. Though it’s never said, what he’s really asking for is protection over the six-month period, as their stops in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi are likely to draw attention.
It comes as no surprise that the duo runs into trouble and Lipp’s brawn and brazen attitude is handy in getting them out of one tough jam after another. I doubt anyone will be stunned when the two men’s differences are broken down and they become friends. These events happen like clockwork, and the script by Brian Hayes Currie, Nick Vallelonga (Lipp’s son) and Farrelly ensures these moments occur in a gentle, obvious manner.
And yet there’s something compelling about the film that keeps you engaged despite its predictability. There’s sincerity between the two leads that makes the most hackneyed moments seem genuine. A scene in which Shirley pulls a Cyrano and helps Lipp write his wife, Dolores (a very good Linda Cardellini), a love letter is sweet and not overplayed, while a sequence in which the musician laments his frustration over not being sure of his place in society due to his race and sexual orientation proves a dramatic highlight.
These scenes and a few more are expertly executed by Mortensen and Ali. The actors, each playing larger-than-life characters, know that restraint is the proper approach. They’re both experienced enough to realize there are moments where you have to step back, trust the script and simply let the drama play out. It’s wonderful to see these two in action, their scenes a tutorial on effective screen acting.
The film’s ending is a bit too much to swallow, but by that point Farrelly and company have established so much good will that you allow it. There’s something to be said about leaving your audience happy. In the end, despite the historical alterations and gentle approach, there’s no question that ultimately Green Book succeeds in delivering its message.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.