He’s been given a gem of a part as nightclub bouncer/driver Tony Lip, and he makes the most of it.
And the Oscar winner for best actor is … Viggo Mortensen.
OK, it’s a little early to be making that prediction. And, besides, who really cares about the Oscars these days? (OK, even I still sort of do.)
The point is, Mortensen deserves an Oscar for his work “Green Book.” He’s delivered top-notch performances for decades, in films such as “The Indian Runner,” “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises,” “Appaloosa” and “Captain Fantastic.” But here he’s been given a gem of a part as nightclub bouncer/driver Tony Lip. He makes the most of it, and the result is one of the year’s cinematic highlights.
Director Peter Farrelly, best known for the crude, sporadically hilarious comedies he’s made with his brother Bobby (“Dumb & Dumb,” “Kingpin,” “There’s Something About Mary”), raises his game with this new, seriocomic film, which deals with everything from the power of art to racism.
It’s 1962, and Tony Lip, an Italian American who lives in the Bronx with his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and kids, works as bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub. He’s not known to back down from a fight, even with known gangsters. But, despite his tough-guy credentials, he refuses to earn more money by turning thug for the mob.
Instead, when the Copa is temporarily closed for renovations, Tony takes a job as a driver for a classically trained black pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who’s about to embark on a tour of the South.
You couldn’t find two more different types of men. Tony is streetwise, gregarious, inarticulate, crude, charismatic. Doctor Shirley is refined, aloof, highly educated, a loner. But, predictably, both men find a common ground, and a strong respect for each other, as they encounter the blatant racism of the early ’60s American South.
What isn’t predictable is how convincing, moving and entertaining this film is. Based on a true story, “Green Book” doesn’t shy away from showing that life often is not fair – that sometimes fists or bribes have more impact than taking the moral high ground, that racism is a formidable opponent. But it also shows that there is good in people, that they have the capacity to evolve. More than anything, “Green Book” (the title refers to a travel guide for black people traveling in the South) is about acceptance as an expression of love.
As the pianist, Ali, an Oscar winner for 2016’s “Moonlight,” provides a perfect counterpart to Mortensen’s Tony. His character commands respect not just for his remarkable artistic talent and regal bearing, but because he puts his life on the line to oppose racism through his art. Tony, despite his lack of sophistication (which provides many of the film’s laughs), comes to appreciate the subtleties of Doctor Shirley’s honorable character, which in turn bring out his own virtues.
Despite Ali’s fine performance, this is Mortensen’s movie. Truly unforgettable characters are rare, but Mortensen has created one.