Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” surprises with just how thoroughly enjoyable it is while tackling a complex topic.

In Farrelly’s road trip and character study, we’re presented two disparate individuals — piano virtuoso Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) — who in 1962 come from two different worlds. Today, in some quarters, they’d still come from two different worlds.

In 1962, de jure segregation is the norm in the South while de facto segregation rules the North. Shirley, nationally known, needs a driver to chauffeur him throughout the Midwest and, eventually, Southern states that include Georgia and Alabama on a concert tour with his trio.

His pedigree, his education, perfect diction and dignified manner will never buy him respect or tolerance in the South at that time. It doesn’t do much in some corners of the North either.

He hires Tony for the two-month road trip and it’s clear that preconceived notions and biases rule the day. Tony’s a bit put off at first by Shirley. In his neighborhood, the Bronx, where he and his friends and family engage in casual, albeit overt racism, he’s not quite sure what to make of Shirley.

As for Shirley, he’s very much aware of the type of man in whose hands he’s put his faith and well-being. In part because Tony’s reputation as an enforcer precedes him, that’s never an issue. And that’s all right with Tony.

The strength in “Green Book,” which takes its title from the name of a directory of businesses safe for African-Americans to use in the Jim Crow South, comes in how Farrelly, who directs from a script co-written with Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son) and Brian Currie, doesn’t make racial and cultural differences central to what happens.

Sound strange? Not really. It is a central issue, but it unfurls organically as these two men navigate their respective dissimilarities.

As they tool around the country, getting to know one another, racism rears its ugly head on more than one occasion. It allows Tony to indirectly experience what African-Americans contend with, as he has little problem receiving accommodations any place they go, while Shirley endures stays in rat-trap motels.

What’s unexpected is just how nuanced Farrelly is while approaching these complex issues. Expectations of behavior and action have always plagued African-Americans in this country. In a lot of ways, we as a people haven’t been allowed by mainstream society to be who we are and who we want to be.

For example, Tony reacts with surprise when he learns that Shirley hasn't had Kentucky Fried Chicken, or when he doesn’t recognize songs from Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and so on. He’s just as surprised by his love for classical piano pieces.

Shirley walks a very fine line as he finds it difficult to find acceptance among anyone. Ali provides complete understanding of that and delivers a performance to match. But his turn is subtle, as during some scenes the aura of melancholy he exudes betrays the outward appearance of confidence and dignity.

Thoroughly enjoyable is the interplay with Mortensen’s Tony. Packing on the pounds, the normally chiseled Mortensen delivers an empathetic and natural comedic performance.

Much praise for Farrelly, who finds the right tone in “Green Book,” not easy for a subject that requires a light and deft touch to have any chance of success.

“Green Book” represents the rare crowd pleaser that deserves heaping amounts of critical praise.

 

George M. Thomas can be reached at gthomas@thebeaconjournal.com.