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“Green Book” Draws Cheers At Opening Night of Virginia Film Festival

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In all honesty, I wasn’t quite sure I would like “Green Book,” the new dramedy by Peter Farrelly that opened the 31st annual Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville (Nov. 1). Judging from the trailer, it looked way too much like an inverted “Driving Miss Daisy,” the Oscar-winning 1989 film that I never watched, yet it still makes me cringe somehow.

“Green Book” is based on a true story but it’s similarly predictable: A virtuoso classical pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is black, hires a crude Italian bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), to drive him on a tour through the deep South during the Jim Crow era, teaching him lessons about racism along the way.

The trailer says it all: It’s the kind of moralizing Oscar bait that Hollywood loves, an odd couple road flick that gives us permission to laugh through a serious subject, to celebrate the momentary triumph of personal connection over lifelong systemic racism.

The film was introduced by new University of Virginia President James E. Ryan, a young legal scholar and marathon runner who noted that the theater we were sitting in, the Paramount, which dates from 1931, had at one time been in the Negro Motorist Green Book. If you’re unfamiliar, the “Green Book” was a travelers guide for African-Americans allowing them to find services and places that were safe during a very unsafe period (1936-1966). The packed house at the Paramount applauded this news, but Ryan quickly countered: Not so fast, African-Americans were allowed in, but had to eat elsewhere – the applause turned, awkwardly, into groans.

Known for his gross-out humor in blockbusters like “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” Farrelly does well enough with his first drama, employing more feel-good comedic touches as well as nicely paced character development and only a few cringe-worthy scenes. The film is predictable, but it’s also a charming crowd-pleaser that drew frequent laughs and heavy applause by the end. While the script is okay, the real draw is the wonderful acting by the two leads.

Simmering with inner conflict, Ali is regal and elegant, like a modern-day Sidney Poitier, while Mortenson knocks his “Soprano” role out of the park, showing impressive comedic chops I didn’t know he had. Both actors will likely earn Oscar nods, and Mortensen should be considered an early favorite, he’s that good as Tony Lip, packing on an extra 30 pounds to play a “bullshit artist” with a passion for life. He only knows one effort level – 100 percent – whether loving, fighting, or chowing down 26 hotdogs. Shirley is more complicated: a gay, multilingual pianist who feels he doesn’t fit in with blacks or whites, a man without a country.

And so it goes in the car: Shirley teaches Lip about his abundant white privilege, while Lip simultaneously teaches Shirley to level up his self-respect. Watching their relationship grow is heart-warming at times, even if you're not usually suckered in by feel-good movies.

By the end, Lip makes what some may feel is an unrealistically quick moral evolution: from a guy who throws away two of his own drinking glasses after black laborers use them at the beginning of the film, to a guy who quickly shuts down other members of his family for using racist language. But hey, that’s a tidy Hollywood ending for you. Again, it’s a credit to these two actors that the movie never goes off the rails.

I kept waiting to be disgusted by mounting cliché, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared, mainly because Farrelly keeps the focus on the budding relationship, while the comedic relief is tasteful and effective – it seemed way more “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” than “Miss Daisy.” We see plenty horrible acts of racism from people in the South, particularly cops, and it’s all realistically done and heartbreaking. But the audience sticks with the emotional center of the story because it feels rooted in authentic friendship.

It’s definitely a Thanksgiving picture, even though they’re racing home from tour for Christmas dinner. Moreover, it feels mostly true in the small details -- this story about two radically different men who each live by their own codes of honor above all else. From this mutual connection and respect, they built a close friendship that lasted until both of them died, around 2013.

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