It’s more than a little surprising to see the name of Peter Farrelly at the helm of a ‘serious’ picture that’s generating real Oscar buzz. He’s certainly been involved in several projects that are beloved of many, but for all their considerable claims towards iconic status, Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary were never giving Academy voters sleepless nights.
Green Book on the other hand is sure to give them at least something to think about. It’s a timely comedy drama about an odd-couple road trip across the American Deep South in the early 1960s and the horrendous racial attitudes of the time, slightly let down by obvious storytelling, its tendency towards easy crowd-pleasing and its refuge in broad comedy when its message threatens to become too heavy.
Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson) is a bouncer in a New York nightclub that closes for renovations. Looking for employment to tide him over, he’s recommended as a driver for famed pianist ‘Doc’ Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The fastidious musician is embarking on a concert tour through the Deep South – an undertaking that’s arguably both incredibly brave and suicidally foolish for a black man at the time. The brash bruiser Tony understands he’s not being taken on purely for his skills behind the wheel, and despite immediate mutual antipathy between the pair he takes the assignment.
Green Book resembles a race-flipped Driving Miss Daisy, with the narrative hinging around two sparring protagonists who slowly come to respect and care for each other. It is far more blunt in its storytelling however; seemingly happy for its leads to shoulder the weight of expectation, but both actors split the load beautifully. Mortensen’s role is more immediately eye-catching, as a paunchy Italian-American wise guy isn’t an obvious fit for the soulful Dane; but he fully embodies Tony Lip, even if it’s an instantly recognisable template. He never smooths off Tony’s many rough edges, but slowly reveals different layers to the man and earning our gradual empathy. His evolution from ingrained, unthinking racist who would throw a glass in the bin if a black man had drunk from it, to a more enlightened and thoughtful man is an obvious one, but played with all Mortensen’s considerable charisma, and It’s not entirely implausible given the baptism of fire he witnesses Shirley undergo as the tour progresses.
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Ali has arguably the tougher job as the elegant, introverted pianist. Shirley is a man used to keeping his own counsel, often out of necessity given he performs to rapturous reception from audiences who shake his hand, but who would spit in his face in other circumstances. Ali draws on an innate air of nobility he exudes (which came through naturally even as a drug dealer in Moonlight) to make the respect he earns from a man like Tony not just understandable, but inevitable. He also conveys oceans of deep sadness beneath a placid and assured surface, allowing just little hints of his despair to surface, such as through a consumption of whiskey as prodigious as his musicianship. The chalk and cheese dynamic between the pair is superb, and on those terms Green Book is as good an example of the odd-couple buddy movie as there has been recently, the skill of the actors making a virtue of some occasionally clunky dialogue as the two men warily circle each other. Farrelly proves himself an excellent director of actors, aware of the assets at his disposal and making full use of them. It’s a skill for which, again, a filmmaker known principally for comedy may not receive due credit.
The rest of the film is ordinary in comparison. Narratively, the film follows a predictable path, making a stop-off at just about every road movie cliche along the way; breakdowns, bust-ups and brotherhood are all ticked-off and dispensed with. Many of the moments intended to have real dramatic power are so thuddingly obvious that they risk raising more eyebrows than emotions. The dapper Shirley faced by a field of black labourers while Tony fixes the car is an example of this, hauling some lip-service nods to issues of class into the mix as well.
The film also glosses over Shirley’s sexuality, with a tryst in a public bathhouse that leads to an arrest cast as just another bump in the road to be traversed, with nary a mention again; certainly not from Tony whose beatific handling of the situation rings slightly false given his early behaviour is not exactly progressive. The situation feels like it was added as a bolster for Tony’s character, rather than any genuine insight into Shirley, and the film would have been no worse off for it not to have been referred to at all.
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Despite the evident problems Green Book has, and the cynical taste of the Awards-bait formula to which it rigidly adheres, it’s hard not to be ultimately won over by it. For the most part, it manages to avoid the icky excesses of the white saviour narrative to which other similarly-themed works like The Help falls prey, and the film’s heart is so achingly in the right place that the easy and slightly self-satisfied conclusions it draws about race and kinship can be, if not excused, at least overlooked.
In a year when a genuine original like The Favourite is gaining serious awards buzz, Green Book may be considered a little safe for the biggest prizes, but it’s unfeasible that Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali will not be in contention for the acting gongs.