Greetings again from the darkness. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a travel guide highlighting safe places for African Americans to stay, eat and visit from the 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. Yes, it was a real publication and yes, there was a real need for it during the Jim Crow era. The book makes for a nice movie title, but this sterling dramedy from director Peter Farrelly focuses more on the budding friendship of two men from vastly different worlds separated by a few city blocks.
Mr. Farrelly is one-half of the infamous Farrelly Brothers who have directed such raunchy comedy hits as THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) and DUMB AND DUMBER (1994). This is quite the change of pace for him, as it is for co-stars Mahershala Ali (Oscar winner last year for MOONLIGHT) and heavy drama stalwart Viggo Mortensen. We see a crisp blend of the era’s harsh racism and the inherent comedy of a buddy road trip featuring a working class NYC Italian-American and an upper crust, well-educated, world class African-American pianist.
The film kicks off in 1962 at the Copacabana, a mob-controlled club where Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (a beefed up Mortensen) gives us an up-close look at his bouncer skills. He’s quite good at his job. When the club closes for renovation, he takes a job as a chauffeur/bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who is beginning an 8 week tour as the featured player in a jazz trio through the Midwest and Deep South. Tony Lip is a walking Italian cliché, while Dr Shirley is a regal black man … in fact, he might view himself as royalty – living alone in a swank apartment above Carnegie Hall. This is a good time to note that Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script, is a producer on the film, and even makes an appearance as a State Trooper.
Inspired by the true story of this trip and the lifelong friendship that ensued, we get to know both men as they get to know each other. Tony Lip is a streetwise man who is comfortable with his lot in life, while Dr. Shirley plays his role in society while quietly stewing internally. He flashes his toothy grin to disarm the adoring white audiences, but then sucks down his Cutty Sark in the evening, as he is good enough to perform for them, but not good enough to dine with them (or even use their restroom). There are times the racism gets violent and that’s where Tony Lip comes in.
Don helps Tony write romantic and intimate letters to his wife Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini), while Tony teaches Don about KFC and Little Richard … proclaiming “I’m blacker than you!” in one of the film’s funniest moments. It’s an awkward buddy film that in real life developed into a decades-long friendship – one that only ended when both died in 2013. It could be described as a twisted DRIVING MISS DAISY with a dose of THE HELP. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, even delivering a mushy ending not dissimilar to that of PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. Of course we don’t mind, because after spending a couple of hours with these two, we are fine with a feel-good ending. The film is showcase for two terrific actors, and for those that don’t know, the real Tony Lip appeared in a few projects such as “The Sopranos” and DONNIE BRASCO. Expect to see these two actors get some love at Oscar time, and this is one of the few that can be recommended to just about every movie lover.