“Kentucky Fried Chicken! In Kentucky! When’s that ever gonna happen?”
Genre I’d put it in: Quietly Moving Biopics
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the real lives of Dr. Donald Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Also based on real Green Books, the AAA for people of color who wanted to travel to the South and be safe. Well, as safe as they could be given the racism of the South.
Gotta say: Well, because this movie has been bumped up from its original opening date, I caught my screening after Book hit theaters. So let’s just get into the nitty-gritty, shall we?
I loved it. It’s a low-key look at how racism shapes everyone, no matter where you are or how much you believe this issue “doesn’t touch” you. As Shirley and Vallelonga, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen have an on-screen chemistry that, like their real-life counterparts, builds slowly during their trip. Director Peter Farrelly, typically known for batshit crazy comedies like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and the horrifically terrible Movie 43, dials down the crazy while still letting a dry situational humor surface as Shirley and Vallelonga encounter situations that are far from humorous. It’s thisclose to gallows humor, and it works perfectly.
The story is a simple one, which allows Ali and Mortensen to guide their characters through various stages. Walls are lowered, secrets revealed, and ultimately the two come to respect each other’s different talents. Ali and Mortensen deliver performances that are so good many may think acting is easy after seeing Book. It’s not. They just make it look effortless by thoroughly inhabiting their characters. If these two don’t get showered with nominations this award season, I’ll eat my hat. (And it’s a damn unappetizing looking hat.)
The screenplay shines, thanks to Brian Hayes Currie’s way of finding truth and humor) in even the worst situations, and Tony Vallelonga’s son Nick (who also has a small role in Book) who surely added lots of personal touches that fleshed out Tony’s hard-ass “Guinea Wop” (Tony’s words) persona. And a shout-out to the art department and costuming, because Book feels absolutely authentic. No, I wasn’t around at the time. Thanks for that. But the details of this film, from Tony’s gold Miraculous Medal and Shirley’s damn fine early 60s style, to the dusty and wonderful jazz club (or the just plain horrible “Coloreds Only” accommodations) are all amazing. It felt like I’d been sucked into that era, and that’s a damn hard thing to accomplish.
Don’t get me wrong; this film isn’t a laugh a minute. Book looks at what life was like in 1962, and pulls no punches. I found myself gasping, and even mumbling “sons of bitches!” when the inevitable racist scumbags reared their ugly heads. But Shirley and Vallelonga’s interactions – from their first Odd Couple-esque conversations to their later on-the-same-page snark – lighten the dark load without dismissing history. It’s a fine balance that makes Book more than a simple story of two people trying to drive through the South. It’s a story about how two people drive through the South, and in dealing with whatever came their way, began to understand each other and themselves.
#Protip: I love that after his passing, the New York Times described Shirley as “a Pianist With His Own Genre”. That’s absolutely lovely. And here in Book, it’s shown to be absolutely true.