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Along for the ride

'Green Book' follows black pianist and his white driver through the Deep South

Who woulda thunk that Peter Farrelly -- half of the "Farrelly Brothers" team behind movies like "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary"-- would make a film that finds itself in the Oscar conversation? But he has. His new comedy-drama "Green Book," an amiable film based on a true story, follows the thorny but ultimately rosy friendship between a black pianist and his white driver forged on the road in the Deep South during the 1960s. Though breezily entertaining, this cinematic vehicle also lurches in and out of the usual racial potholes, making its song of the South -- and North -- catch in the throat.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Frank Anthony Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip, a bouncer at the Copa in 1962. A thick slab of meat working a plush nightclub, Tony Lip has earned a rep as a stand-up guy both uptown and in his native Bronx, within white social circles that only admit blacks as a matter of necessity. As such, Tony casually tosses off racial slurs and gestures, as when he throws out a glass his wife has offered to a black home repairman. But his work suddenly dries up, prompting Tony to interview for an unlikely job driving and protecting a black recording artist on an eight-week concert tour well below the Mason-Dixon line.

That artist is Jamaican-American pianist and composer Don Shirley (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), a man who typically strives to live above it all in his ostentatious apartment above Carnegie Hall. The minute he walks in the film, you can see he is a man of distinction, and although he clearly regards Vallelonga as uncouth (which he is, to put it mildly), Shirley also cannily recognizes the man's value as someone with an "innate ability to handle trouble." And there will be trouble, because of Shirley's conspicuous otherness of race, refinement and sexuality, each taken as a threat by someone.

And so the stage is set for a tidy fable of prejudice confronted and overcome. In our "MAGA" times, "Green Book" serves as a reminder of our supposedly great but actually fraught past. Sure, dig those clean-cut fashions and sleek cars, but recall, as the film does, that blacks valued the advice of "The Negro Motorist's Green Book" (particularly useful in the South) for help in "traveling while black" and finding accommodating hotels and restaurants. At a climactic moment, "Green Book" also recalls how Nat King Cole took a beating from the Klan on a Birmingham, Alabama stage in 1956. Shirley insisted on his Southern tours anyway, out of stubbornness and, the film suggests, righteous civic duty. "Genius is not enough," remarks one of his admiring bandmates. "It takes courage to change people's hearts."

Apart from these serious considerations, though, "Green Book" largely runs on mismatched buddy comedy (also resonant in a society still hung up on elitist versus common man distinctions), with Ali the Felix to Mortensen's Oscar. Absurdly claiming "I'm more black than you are!," Tony teaches Don to enjoy delicious Kentucky Fried Chicken and popular black recording artists, while Don plays Cyrano in upping Tony's game writing love letters to his wife.

In corny fashion, the two broaden each other's horizons, but "Green Book" also queasily brushes against white-savior tropes, and the script (partly attributed to Valellonga's son) privileges the viewpoint of Tony by making him the protagonist and the lonely, alcoholic and closeted Don his emotionally dependent foil (a couple of Shirley's survivors have denounced the film on this basis). Ignore that, and "Green Book" easily amuses and heart warms, gaining crucial buoyancy from its terrific leading performances. But it's hard not to feel "Green Book" sells Shirley's story short, and for a film so concerned with racial justice, that's a conspicuous failing.

— Peter Canavese

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Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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