Under the Radar

'Green Book': Your 2019 Best Picture Just Wants Everyone to Get Along

Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) enjoy a pecan log roll at Stuckey's in the Best Picture Oscar-winning "Green Book." (Universal)

"Green Book" (out now on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital) is a good-hearted movie that features engaging performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali and surprisingly light direction from Peter Farrelly, who's best known as the auteur behind gross-out comedies like "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary." It just won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and (some) people are freaked out.

The story is based on the real-life recollections of mob-adjacent New York tough guy Tony "the Lip" Vallelonga about his job as driver and security man for the African-American musician Dr. Don Shirley as Shirley took his trio on a tour of the Deep South.

Shirley was a classically trained musician who couldn't work as a concert pianist because of his race and made a successful career leading a "jazz" trio that performed "classical" arrangements of popular standards. His middlebrow "classy" music was aimed at much the same audience as French pianist Jacques Loussier, known for his "jazz" arrangements of works by Bach and who died last week.

Shirley's music had been largely forgotten before this movie, but he was post-World War II famous in that mid-century world of folks who furnished their homes with modern furniture and stocked their kitchens with imported wine.

Tony's son Nick spent years trying to get a movie made from the stories his father told him and shares a screenwriting Oscar for this movie. In Nick's remembrances of how Tony told the story, Don Shirley opened Tony's mind, and he got the refined musician to loosen up and have a good time.

That's where alarm bells have gone off for younger audiences who cried foul when "Green Book" started winning awards. There's no doubt that the old white guys who made the movie are one million percent sincere in their plea for harmony, and they were most certainly inspired by the "everyone can learn from each other" approach used in a movie like 1967 Best Picture winner "In the Heat of the Night."

In a year when other Best Picture nominees included the African civilization-inspired "Black Panther" and Spike Lee's wicked satire on white racism "BlacKkKlansman," Green Book seems mighty old-fashioned. Mortensen (Oscar-nominated for Best Actor), Ali (winner as Best Supporting Actor) and Linda Cardellini all add depth to characters who could have come off like the comic-relief supporting players on "The Sopranos."

"Green Book" is not the worst movie ever to win Best Picture, nor is it even the worst movie to win this decade. Even if there are a lot of folks who (sincerely) think it's soft on racism, there are plenty more who could use a dose of the understanding it promotes. I'm inclined to cut it a break, even if I'd rather watch "BlacKkKlansman" again than ever see "Green Book" one more time.

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