Driving Mr. Dan
Green Book is one of the feel-good movies of the year. With an essentially true story, a super-smart script, brilliant star turns by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, and matching support from Linda Cardellini, it’s one of 2018’s bullseye crowd-pleasers, as attested by its winning the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
The story deals with Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Mortensen), who late in life made a name for himself as an actor (Donnie Brasco, Goodfellas, The Sopranos). But in 1962, when the movie takes place, he was a Bronx-working stiff and bouncer at Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub. When the Copa closes down for two months of repairs, Tony needs to find work. An eight-week gig surfaces, driving for a doctor—or so he thinks. But the term “doctor” just denotes a degree in musicology; his new employer is the African-American jazz and classical concert pianist Don Shirley (Ali), who hires Tony as driver and bodyguard for a concert tour, starting in Pennsylvania, then moving deep into the Jim Crow South.
We already know that the good-hearted, but uncouth Tony has a streak of bigotry; in his family all the men show up as “protection” when his wife Dolores (Cardellini) hires two black plumbers—and Tony, himself, tosses glasses into the garbage because Dolores served the plumbers lemonade in them.
To add to the early friction, Don is as cultured as Tony is coarse, as fastidious as Tony is slovenly, as circumspect as Tony is heedless. And yet this odd couple finds common ground early on in a kind of honesty that grows into mutual respect—if at first grudging and prickly.
The movie’s script, as it happens, is the work of Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga (with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly), and several Vallelonga relatives play roles in it. All of which underscores the feeling that the movie is giving us the straight dope—if not the way it really happened, then at least how the Vallelongas like to remember it (both Tony Lip and Don Shirley died in 2013). Besides, any doubts are dispelled by the instantaneous chemistry between Mortensen (almost unrecognizable under 30 pounds of flab and a gangland accent) and Ali (so far from his Oscar-winning turn in Moonlight that he looks like a different person with the same face).
Green Book (the title refers to a once-popular guide for motorists on how to avoid trouble when “traveling while black") hits all the expected beats. It might have been as painfully predictable and overrated as Driving Miss Daisy if it weren’t for the appeal of its central relationship. To be honest, it’s not always clear just what we’re responding to—is it seeing these two real-life men bond on the road, or simply seeing these two superb actors at the top of their game recreating that bond?
Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Either way, the experience is a pure pleasure.