Movie review: Racism hits the road in sterling 'Green Book'

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali hit all the right notes in this warm road trip movie about friendship and overcoming social ills

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), the good guy goombah at the center of the 1960s-set comedic racial drama "Green Book," is discussing the word "virtuoso." 

"It's Italian," he says, his street corner inflection making him sound like a predecessor to one of Tony Soprano's henchmen. "It means really good!" 

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book."

In that case, consider "Green Book" virtuoso as well.

This is an expertly-acted, perfectly telegraphed message movie that knows the buttons it's pushing, and pushes them all, right on cue. This is not a knock against it, it's a compliment.  

"Green Book" — which is based on a true story — is obvious, on-the-nose filmmaking, delivered in a folksy package and arriving just in time for the holidays and awards season. But it's done so well that it's hard to resist. Audiences will eat it up, and Oscar voters will, too.

Lip is a New York City bouncer in 1962, a streetwise son of a gun who's a little rough around the edges, but good at his core. His casual racism is a sign of the times and his environment; he throws away two glasses in his kitchen after they're used by black plumbers doing work in his house. 

When he's laid off from his job at the Copacabana, he takes a job driving Don "Doc" Shirley ("Moonlight" Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali), a pianist and composer, on tour in the Midwest and through the South. The gig stretches through the holidays and will take Tony away from his family (Linda Cardellini plays his wife, Dolores), but the pay is good, so he takes it. 

It's an immediate culture clash between Tony and Doc. Tony's education was in the streets, Doc studied at Harvard. Tony eats fast food and listens to pop music on the radio, Doc has never tried KFC and only knows classical composers. You get it.

But during those long car rides, they make a connection that eclipses their race and class differences. Sure, you can plot out where "Green Book" is headed, and it arrives at those stops just like the dates on Doc's tour. But the performances from Mortensen and Ali transcend the predictable nature of the material and make "Green Book" hum. 

Mortensen — twice nominated for Best Actor, for "Eastern Promises" and "Captain Fantastic" — is remarkable, not only nailing the New York goodfella type, but finding the soul underneath his tough exterior. He makes a compelling character out of what could have been a cliché.  

But it's Mahershala who steals "Green Book," playing a sophisticated, scholarly individual who's nonetheless subjected to subhuman treatment because of the color of his skin. Mahershala wears Doc's indignation and his reluctant acceptance of the way things are, until it's time to not accept them anymore. It's a confident, layered, powerful performance, and Mahershala may want to start making room for a second Oscar trophy on his shelf. 

Director Peter Farrelly, one-half of the "Dumb & Dumber" Farrelly Brothers duo, shows considerable growth as a filmmaker, but still delivers on a crowd-pleasing, populist level. He hasn't gone all highbrow on us. But at a time when awards season fare needs to connect with audiences, Farrelly does the job: "Green Book" is an old-fashioned, feel good, everybody-hold-hands kind of movie with a holiday backdrop to boot. It's got the goods, and it delivers them.  

Doc is hailed as a musical genius, but genius alone cannot enact social advancements. "It takes courage to change people's hearts," he says. "Green Book" is up to that task.


'Green Book'


Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material

Running time: 130 minutes