Peter Farrelly deserves credit for venturing well outside his wheelhouse. Half of the fraternal filmmaking duo behind Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary and other gross-out milestones, the director took us on a long drive with two goofballs in a shaggy-dog-mobile in 1994. Who would've imagined that all these years later he'd be on the road again with the saga of another odd couple, only this time with the dick jokes and potty humor replaced by Oscar buzz?
Green Book offers the fact-based story of two men from different worlds whose paths intersect in 1962. Viggo Mortensen packed on 40 pounds and adopted a goombah accent straight out of My Cousin Vinny to play Copacabana bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga. When the legendary club closes for repairs, he needs a gig and soon finds himself above Carnegie Hall in the palatial digs (a throne is involved) of famed concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley.
Mahershala Ali delivers an elegant portrait of the artist as a multidimensional and extraordinarily gifted man who happened to be black. As the movie opens, Shirley is about to embark on a national tour that will include concerts in the Bible Belt, so he knows he'll need to bring some muscle along to have a prayer. Bingo bango, Tony signs on as his new driver.
On paper, let's face it, this wouldn't exactly scream awards bait. Many of the movie's details are so familiar and frayed, they feel borrowed from any number of forgettable TV shows and films: the loud, crowded dinners in Tony's Bronx apartment; the improbable conversations in the turquoise Cadillac DeVille (introducing Shirley to the wonders of both fried chicken and Little Richard, Tony exclaims, "Hey, I'm blacker than you!"); the inevitable bond that develops between these diametrically opposed men.
But here's the baffling thing: Somehow Farrelly, Mortensen and Ali manage a crazy alchemy that grabs you, drags you along for the ride and makes you grateful for every one of this movie's 130 minutes.
What Farrelly has succeeded in assembling out of used parts is a gleaming crowd-pleaser that fires on all feel-good pistons. The title is taken from a travel guide of the time that directed black motorists to lodging and restaurants in the South where they'd be served. Little by little, indignity after indignity, Shirley emerges in this context as an exotic, almost otherworldly figure. Determined to set an example of cultivation and passive resistance, he was a one-man musical civil-rights movement.
Which, eventually, Tony gets. And admires. And more than once puts his life on the line for. So, yeah, it doesn't get a whole lot more warm and fuzzy than this, or more by-the-numbers. Movies also rarely get more inexplicably affecting. It probably didn't hurt that one of Farrelly's cowriters was Tony Lip's son. Nick Vallelonga may have airbrushed the old man a bit — mob connections, for example, have been played down virtually to the point of erasure. But where's the harm?
Fun facts: Tony's odyssey didn't remotely end when the tours wound down. He went on to become an actor. He played a wedding guest in The Godfather and portrayed wise guys in everything from Goodfellas to "The Sopranos." Shirley performed for kings and presidents; distinguished himself as a painter; and composed symphonies, piano concerti, operas, even a tone poem based on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. And the two remained good friends. If ever a buddy film screamed sequel, it's Green Book.