“Green Book” is driven by vibrant characters brought to life in two outstanding performances.
Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class pianist with elegant tastes and speech to fit his high society life. He does not, however, have the right skin color. He is black in an era where segregation is part of daily life in the U.S., especially in the South.
Tony and Shirley team up when Shirley decides to perform a concert tour through the Deep South and needs someone well acquainted with “public relations.” For their tour they use “The Green Book,” a travel guide designed for African-Americans listing restaurants and hotels that will admit them. A black man and a short-tempered guy from the north in the South, what could go wrong?
“Green Book” is not carried by plot. If it was it would be a fairly dull film. Scene after scene of Shirley playing, then getting beat up, then having Tony rescue him wouldn’t support a movie.
No, “Green Book” succeeds because of Mortensen and Ali’s performances, their characters and the words and worlds they exchange.
Mortensen disappears into the role of Tony: his looks, his thick Bronx brogue, even the way he holds his cigarette when he smokes is all Tony, who is only there for the job and the money it will provide his family. As the concert tour progresses, he learns a few tips from Shirley, like how to write good love letters back home to his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and how to solve problems non-violently (well, maybe not so much on the last one).
Ali plays Shirley’s poise with precision. The way he moves and speaks reflects his desire to be set apart from other black performers. However, it’s fuel for an identity crisis: people see him as acting too white to be black, but looking too black to be white. He isn’t accepted in either world and therefore feels isolated. He is lonely and turns to his nightly drink. Tony helps him become more comfortable with who he is.
Over the course of the film the two very different and complicated men become friends.
However, like any friendship, there are conflicts between the two. Some of these add humor as their two worldviews collide. Tony likes to talk a lot while Shirley prefers silence. Tony curses while Shirley uses words Tony doesn’t know how to spell. Even their food preferences differ and Tony has to practically force Kentucky Fried Chicken into Shirley’s mouth. Not only do these differences and exchanges made the audience laugh, as the two grow closer, the characters laugh too.
“Green Book” tells the story of their unlikely friendship. Tony helps Shirley by always having his back without judgment and Shirley helps Tony become a better man. They learn from and appreciate each other. Thanks to stellar performances by Mortensen and Ali, and a script that will make you laugh and think, “Green Book” succeeds on all levels.