“You never win with violence, you only win when you maintain your dignity,” says Mahershala Ali in the first trailer for Green Book. The awards season contender will see Ali portraying legendary pianist Don Shirley, as he embarks upon a tour of the deep south.
Although, this taking place in 1962, that will prove to be difficult for the African American musician. Which is where Viggo Mortensen‘s Tony Lip, an Italian American bouncer (and later actor) with a very different worldview, comes in.
The film is based on true events, where Lip was hired by Shirley to drive him around on tour and takes its name from the “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” A yearly travel guide published by Victor Hugo Green, which informed African Americans of businesses welcoming to them at the height of the Jim Crow era.
The trailer opens with Lip taking a call, being informed that a doctor is looking for a driver. We see a flash of Shirley’s masterful piano playing before we’re fully introduced to a magnificently dressed Ali.
Shirley explains the situation, that he requires a driver for his upcoming tour. As this plays in voiceover, we get a glimpse of Lip’s life as a bouncer at the Copacabana Nightclub, the place where Lip also met Francis Ford Coppola. He’s seen here roughing up a patron, hinting at a violent streak that will later come back to bite him.
Lip bluntly tells Shirley that “there’s gonna be problems,” but accepts the job nonetheless. He says goodbye to his wife Dolores, played by the wonderful Linda Cardellini, who makes him promise to write her a letter.
The duo then hit the road, and immediately clash over Lip’s ignorant views. “You people love the fried chicken,” he says, to which Shirley responds that Lip has a “narrow assessment” of him. And when this is taken as a compliment, Shirley’s look turns to one of pure exasperation.
They continue to rub each other the wrong way, as Shirley tells Lip that his “diction could use some finessing.” In response to which Mortensen gets to show how much fun he’s having in the role with a good old “why you breaking my balls?” line. Despite Lip’s abrasive personality, a letter sent back to Dolores does show signs of a bond being formed between the two.
Something that is soon demonstrated when Lip flips out after Shirley is not permitted entry into a restaurant. Next, we see more of their burgeoning friendship in an amusing scene of Shirley mocking Lip’s letters to Dolores. And with lines like “sometimes you remind me of a house,” who can blame him.
After a nice exchange, we move over to a much darker moment, as the duo are stopped by some overly eager cops. Lip lashes out, punching one of them and landing himself in a jail cell, where Shirley gives him the line about not winning with violence.
We then see a number of events with little context– Shirley is violently attacked at a bar, Lip fires a gun in the air, and the two share a drink. And in a clip that looks destined to be played at awards shows, Ali gives a powerful monologue in the rain that is sure to stir up some emotions.
The trailer closes out with a comical return to the car scene, as Lip demonstrates how to dispose of chicken bones (throw them out the window). Shirley joins in and they share a laugh before Lip throws out an empty drink cup. Shirley, clearly not amused, makes him stop the car and return for it, in another indication of their opposing personalities.
Green Book, curiously, was co-written and directed by Peter Farrelly, perhaps best known for Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. A potentially strange choice for this Oscar-friendly biographical drama. Farrelly co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga, Lip’s real-life son.
Fans of The Sopranos may also recognize Tony Lip as the actor behind fan-favorite mob boss Carmine Lupertazzi. In addition to this, Lip also had smaller roles in films like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Godfather.
The film does look charming, and the terrific leading actors certainly do the trailer no harm. Mahershala Ali is great in any role given to him, from his breakout performance in House of Cards to Luke Cage to his stunning Oscar-winning role in Moonlight. And Viggo Mortensen is a great screen presence who we do not see enough of. His last performance, in Captain Fantastic, made many of us eager to see more of him, although it’s now been a whole two years since then.
Linda Cardellini however, doesn’t appear to have very much to do here, unfortunately. The actress really shined on Mad Men and in Welcome to Me, so it’ll be a shame if she does end up with a thankless role here. Although I’m willing to reserve judgment for now, as this is only the first trailer.
I’m also intrigued to see what Farrelly has done here, as this film seems pretty far away from his usual work. Despite some early hits, the director has been attached to some truly shoddy comedies in the following years, so he has a fair bit to prove here.
There looks to be a strong comedic element to Green Book (also helped by the leading actors), while the narrative does seem a little predictable. We can only hope that there’s a bit more beneath the surface here than a simple “opposing personalities learn to accept each other” story. If the film can hit the Hidden Figures sweet spot of playing to the awards crowds, while also having plenty going on beneath the big speeches, we could be in for something good.
And if not, we can at least marvel at Mahershala Ali’s glorious wardrobe.