Melissa McCarthy, Steve Carell and Dave Chappelle are among the onetime comedians delivering dramatic performances at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and on Tuesday director Peter Farrelly joined the TIFF ranks of funny folks getting serious. Farrelly, the director of “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Shallow Hal,” has moved away from hair-gel gags to civil-rights abuses with “Green Book,” which premiered on Tuesday night after a press screening earlier in the day.
The title comes from the Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication designed to tell African-Americans where they could safely eat and stay in the South during the days of segregation. In this case, the man following it was an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, “Tony Lip” (played by Viggo Mortensen), who was hired to chauffeur black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour from Manhattan into the South in 1962.
That trip really happened, with Nick Vallelonga, son of the real-life Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, serving as one of the producers on “Green Book.”
In a festival full of auteur statements like “Roma,” “Vox Lux” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the words you can use to describe “Green Book” all contain a faint tinge of condescension: charming, crowd-pleasing, sweet …
But it’s hardly Farrelly’s fault that he set out to make a mainstream audience movie that tells a fascinating story, and it’s a clear accomplishment that he succeeded as well as he did. While TIFF audiences at public screenings are famously appreciative of almost everything they see, the Press & Industry screenings usually conclude in dead silence as everybody hurries to get to their next film. But “Green Book” drew a robust round of sustained applause on Tuesday, by far the biggest reception at any P&I screening I attended over the last six days.
When the movie begins, Tony Vallelonga is looking for work after the Copacabana has shut down for a couple of months worth of remodeling. He reluctantly agrees to serve as a driver and de facto road manager for Dr. Don Shirley, an elegant man with three PhDs who is so refined he might as well be from Mars as far as Joey is concerned.
Do we know what’s going to happen as soon as they climb into the car and hit the road for an eight-week tour that starts in the Midwest and then takes a hard left turn into the Deep South? Of course we do. The two men will get on each other’s nerves; Tony will start to lose his casual racism when he sees how Shirley is treated in the South; the pianist will come to a grudging respect and even affection for his driver; the tough guy will get more cultured; and the uptight guy will loosen up.
All of that is pretty much a given, and Farrelly isn’t one to throw any curve balls at us. But he also knows how to keep things light enough to set up the tough moments; “Green Book” is not a comedy in the way his previous films were, but it is always a pleasure to watch.
Mortensen has the flamboyant role and makes the most of it, turning Tony into a gruff, gluttonous bonehead with a big heart and a thick accent. It’s a deliciously oversized performance, though Mortensen also nails unexpectedly quiet moments, notably one where he learns something new and potentially shocking about his boss and simply mutters, “I’ve been working nightclubs in New York City my whole life. I know it’s a … complicated world.”
Ali’s character is more internal, harder to embrace until a couple of moving scenes in which we learn a few more of his secrets and his pains. As he showed with his Oscar-winning performance in “Moonlight,” the actor has a real gravity to him, which is perfect for Don Shirley, and he’s completely convincing in the concert scenes. (To its credit, the movie isn’t afraid to stop for jazz.)
The movie gets darker as the journey goes further South, and as the myriad indignities and humiliations mount. But our investment in the characters rarely flags, thanks to Mortensen and Ali and a director who is interested in cleanly and efficiently delivering a story worth hearing.
It all ends on Christmas Eve, and if you don’t know what’s coming by that point you haven’t been paying attention. But that’s OK: To say that we know where the characters in “Green Book” are going is not to cheapen the undeniable pleasures of the ride.