Seriously, folks, a Farrelly brother has finally made a drama — one of substantial social import, too. Three years shy of Social Security — after a successful quarter-century of top-grossing gross-out comedies conceived and executed with his chief conspirator from childhood, brother Bobby — maturity at last finds Peter Farrelly.
And the beauty of this is that Green Book did not require giving up his cinematic specialty: the Road/Buddy Movie. Even he can't say how many there've been.
"I think all of them," he jests. "Too many — that's for sure. I don't know why that is, either." He doesn't count Stuck on You, where Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear made all their moves in synch as conjoined twins, but he does count Dumb and Dumber (both 1 and To), Me, Myself and Irene, There's Something About Mary and Kingpin.
He knew Green Book was Road/Buddy material from the synopsis sentence. "That's what it was. It wasn't like I had any choice when I heard the story. It's two guys on the road together. Something about being on the road appeals to me."
The Universal movie admits right off it's based on "a true friendship" forged in the fall of '62 when Don Shirley dipped below the Mason-Dixon Line and plowed through cotton patches of Dixie prejudices. Shirley was an elegant, erudite virtuoso pianist with three PhDs who resided in the artists' units atop Carnegie Hall for 50-plus years.
The segregated South was another world for him — and a quite dangerous one for any African-American. Hoping for (but not getting) a kinder reception than what befell Nat King Cole six years earlier when he was brutally attacked onstage in Birmingham, Shirley opted to put some muscle and hustle behind the wheel — a brawny Copacabana bouncer named Frank Anthony Vallelonga (a.k.a. Tony Lip, so nicknamed since he could talk or intimidate his way out of any dicey situation).
And that's the movie: the rude and the refined feet apart for miles and miles and miles. "I don't care how far apart you are," says Farrelly. "If you talk to each other and cut through the walls, eventually you're going to find common ground. That's what these guys were able to do because they were stuck in that car together."
Driving Dr. Shirley is not that much different from Driving Miss Daisy in that both films reach the same destination: an unexpected, abiding friendship. This one is based on Victor Hugo Green's The Negro Motorist Green Book, which shepherded African-Americans through three decades (1936-1966) of perilous forays into the Jim Crow South. Here, it's the roadmap/bible that these two characters followed religiously but not necessarily without incidents and indignities for Shirley. Their friendship remained a constant until their deaths, months apart, in 2013.
Vallelonga virtually documented this adventure, leaving behind an audio tape he made 25 years ago and the 67 letters he wrote at the time to his wife in the Bronx.
His son, Nick, waved these at a film-producer pal, Brian Hayes Currie, who saw the movie potential in them and took the idea to the King of The Road/Buddy Movies.
Farrelly was flabbergasted. "I said, 'Omigod! You gotta be kidding!' They hadn't written the script, so I said, 'Could I write it with you?' And the three of us went off and wrote it." His new collaborators stuck around and snagged bits in the film. Vallelonga is the guy in the Bronx bar who pitches the Shirley job, and Currie is the good cop in the film who saves the pair from a fierce Maryland snowstorm.
Viggo Mortensen is the dees-and-dohs Italian-American very much in the driver's seat, and Mahershala Ali is the regal artiste aristocratically filling the backseat.
The two came to this project as friends, having met on the Academy Award merry-go-round a year before. Mortensen was contending for Captain Fantastic, and Ali was up for Moonlight. "They found themselves at a few of these Oscar events, kinda like standing in the corner together, and ended up becoming friends," relays Farrelly. "By the time we started shooting, they knew each other pretty well."
Although he's totally the opposite body type of the real Tony Lip, Mortensen was Farrelly's first choice for the role. "The studios — everybody — told me not to go to him. 'He only does one movie every three years.' 'He's extremely picky, and you're going to waste your time.' But I'd rather waste my time finding out he couldn't do it than wonder about it. Luckily, he loved the script, and I could talk him into it.
"Then, once I had Viggo, I knew that I could get anybody I wanted. Every actor in the world wants to work with Viggo Mortensen, so I thought, 'Well, who's the best guy out there? How about Mahershala Ali, who just won the Oscar for Moonlight?' So I went to Mahershala, who loved the script, too. It was just a magical tandem.'"
To physically approximate the real-life Vallelonga, Mortensen "did a De Niro" — put on 45 pounds. "He went from 165 to 210. He could have just put on a fat suit, but he wanted to feel it. He wanted to walk like him. He wanted to know who this guy is. He's a perfectionist, Viggo. Both of them are. Viggo went as far as to learn how Tony Lip held a cigarette. He wanted to know. There are so many different ways to smoke. How do you hold that cigarette? And he actually had guys show him how. He had pictures, and he really paid attention. He really wanted to capture the guy."
All the comedy in the picture comes from the collision of the two characters, and that was reinforced by the chemistry of the actors. Ali seems to be suffering on Olympus, enduring the dumb chatter and casual bigotry that Mortensen puts out and achieving a lofty haughtiness. Dimly and blissfully, Mortensen takes all of Ali's insults for compliments.
Eventually, over the miles, a mutual respect and affection materialized. Vallelonga, jubilant about discovering Kentucky Fried Chicken in its original state, forces the delicacy on the finicky musician, who has to admit it's not bad. Appalled at Vallelonga's letters to his wife ("It's looks more like a piecemeal ransom note"), Shirley steps up to the plate and improves the prose with some Cyrano flourishes.
There's always a middle-of-the-road predictability in telling a true-life tale, but this film resists the temptation of being preachy and strives for honesty, starting off with a warts-and-all intro to Vallelonga who, early on, throws in the trash some glasses used by black handymen. "This is our hero, and he's revealing himself a racist in the first ten minutes. Can we get out of that hole? If we can't, we're not telling the truth. The whole point is here's a racist who finds his soul during this trip."
The prim and proper Shirley has flaws, too, but Tony Lip shrugged them off on his audio tapes. "He said, 'I grew up in nightclubs. It's a complicated world.' He was accepting of flaws. Probably most people in 1962 weren't. That's what makes the movie not a cliché, showing he's multi-dimensional. He's not just a one-note guy."
Like any Farrelly flick, Green Book is a character-driven comedy — only here minus the slapstick and crudity. As a seasoned practitioner in lowbrow laughs, Farrelly felt the pinch of playing it straight. "The hardest part of writing this, honestly for me, was being always conscious that this kind of comedy is different than that in my other movies," he admits. "I had to fight the instinct of going for a joke. I could have milked it for a lot more jokes, but it would have hurt the story and would have taken away the reality. This is an odd-couple story. Any humor in the film comes from those characters and nothing else. I always followed the Andy Griffith Rule. On 'The Andy Griffith Show,' they never told jokes, but there are a lot of laughs, and those all came from characters. That's what I was thinking the whole time."
That mindset made all the difference. Green Book has a good shot — like previous feel-good racial films (The Help, The Blind Side) — of making the cut for the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees, and the leads could find themselves contending again.
Already, the film is a festival darling, amassing a dozen awards to date, including the Audience Award in Toronto. "I've been to most of the festivals, and it's been great," Farrelly beams. "Normally, when I do a movie, I have a premiere and go home, and that's it. This time I went to festivals with the real film lovers and watched the movie with them. Doing Q&As after has been a real high. It's what I've always wanted to do but never had the chance."
So, will there be more of that from him in the future? "Probably," Farrelly allows after pondering a beat or two, "but, honestly, I never force anything. I never do something just to prove I could do it — even this one. It just dropped in my lap."