Synopsis – A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
My Take – A constant process reserved for the year end is when studios begin releasing their set of Oscar Bait films, all with the hopes of making enough noise to find a place in the upcoming awards season in the next few months. Personally I am a bit cautious before I decide to divulge in most of them, mainly as they tend to be either overly-sentimental or simply just mundane. However, this film, which has been recently named by the National Board of Review as the best film of 2018, felt quite catchy from its first trailer, mainly due to its genius casting of powerhouse performers in the form of Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight).
While the concept does bear similarities to 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, an Oscar winner for Best Picture, the fact that the film was directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly brothers, who brought us funny but often crude films like There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself & Irene, Shallow Hal among others, just made me curious. What I didn’t expect to see was how inspiring and thoroughly entertaining this film would be. Like who would have thought director Farrelly could successfully handle a dramedy about race-relations in the 1960s with such nuance? Here the film mixes authenticity and Hollywood schmaltz with ease that feels both relaxed and judiciously calibrated. Most winningly, the film puts two of the finest screen actors working today in a turquoise Cadillac, letting them loose on a funny, swiftly moving chamber piece bursting with heart, art and soul.
Sure, this film written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly, might feel like a safe, crowd-pleasing film about race relations, but I feel it is a necessary balm, given the state of things today. This film offers audiences a true example of hope, love and understanding that can exist between two different men. If these two vastly contrasting people can find some common ground, there is hope for all of us. Here, director Farrelly and his writers do a good job of presenting this story with some genuinely poignant, unsettling and heartbreaking moments, mixed with charming and thoroughly lovable humor. And yes, his deft direction is here was the perfect choice.
Set in 1962, the story follows Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a working class Italian-American, who works at Copacabana, where he specializes in handling delicate situations at the night club including force, which he believes is the most suitable language to be used. Married happily to Dolores (Linda Cardellini) with two children, Tony begins facing tough times when the club closes down for two months. While the city’s mob bosses are more than happy to offer him a place in their crew, Tony continues his lookout for something legitimate, which comes in the form of a driver job.
Given preference through high recommendations around the town, Tony is offered a job to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American classical pianist on a two month long tour through the Deep South of 1960’s America, where things can get rough so he must guarantee his safety and make sure that he makes his engagements in a timely manner. The two are the archetypal odd-couple, with Dr. Shirley being scholarly, fastidious and composed and Tony being what would seem to be an Italian-American cinematic stereotype; tough, loud, and brash, but together the two face harsh realities and discover a real friendship.
Of course, they do encounter dangerous and/or humiliating situations. The title of the film derives from a period when African-Americans often traveled at their own risk, especially in the Jim Crow South. In response, a postal employee named Victor Hugo Green created a guide designed to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable. For many families, the title will have a significant personal meaning. While the constructs of the film may feel familiar throughout, the pleasure of this film is in the larger than life characters created by the two leads and their perfectly askew chemistry.
By moving beyond the cliché of a black-white relationship the film benefits both characters, and manages to reveal that American racism is more than just changing the hearts and minds of individuals but also institutional and systematic. The pain, peril and murderous racism that made the guide book a necessity back then seems like an unlikely fodder for a crowd-pleaser, but the spirited amalgam of a buddy comedy, road film, fish-out-of-water fable and accessible social history, makes this film a satisfying mainstream film going experience that many observers thought Hollywood had forgotten how to make. There was a time when this film might have been the tale of a racist-with-a-heart-of- gold being redeemed by a too-good-to-be-true African-American shaman or self-sacrificing paragon. No one is redeemed here, just given space to develop mutual respect and affection. The great success of the film lies in its modesty, and the straightforward way it recognizes seismic change in the incremental turning of a human heart.
Right from the first time they meet, there is tension between the two due to their class and racial differences. Tony is surprised that his boss is not familiar with the music he is playing on the radio, a song by Little Richard. Or that Shirley does not eat KFC, turning it down when offered. Not eating anything with his fingers is also a “No, No” for him. On the other hand, Tony gives in to his boss’s demand when he casually tosses out the window his beverage cup. He stops and backs up the car to retrieve it. If that image sounds horribly cringe-worthy, it’s a tribute to director Peter Farrelly that what could be a fatally misbegotten exercise winds up being unexpectedly warm and amusing. It comes as no surprise to learn that here both undergo powerful transformations, which begins with a scene of Tony throwing out two water glasses used by black workmen hired by his wife, Dolores.
Although the film is heavier than the rest of director Farrelly’s filmography, he brings in some warmth and light to the story that emphasizes camaraderie and compassion. His direction is competent and conventional. Working with cinematographer Sean Porter, he has rich earth and jewel tones dominate the visually splendid color palette, and these are well suited to the style of the early ’60s setting. The film also succeeds in using humor as a way to lighten the heavy subject matter and all the racially charged scenarios these characters end up in, in the most unexpected ways. Dr. Shirley helps Lip woo his wife and opens him up a softer side and more polished way of thinking. Lip encourages Dr. Shirley to truly live, take risks and experience new things. While they meet their fair share of trials and adversity while on the road, they grow to have a mutual respect and fondness for each other’s differences. They take turns showing up for each other and teaching valuable lessons about human appreciation, self-worth, and love along the way.
Sure, the film’s pacing suffers at times, especially at the end. The film does try and keep things and locales moving at a somewhat brisk pace, but when it bogs down, you feel it. Luckily, it doesn’t happen too often, but due to the lack of action and otherwise excitement, it suffers every time the film slows down. And also the film doesn’t take on racism with a confrontational approach the way recent films such as BlacKkKlansman or Sorry To Bother You did, and the argument can be made that director Farrelly’s film aims to placate rather than challenge white audiences. It’s difficult to watch the film and not imagine the reception that will inevitably label the film as being Oscar bait.
But because this film unabashedly wears its genuine heart on its sleeve and makes me believe it to be true, I fell in love with it. I know it isn’t the most gutsy or completely relevant examination of racial relations. However, at a time when there is such ugliness in the world, it is wonderful to see a beautiful true story of love and friendship that transcends racial barriers.
But like I mentioned above, the highlight of the film is the chemistry between the two leads and how their performances balance each other well. The chemistry shared between Mortensen and Ali is so likable that it will make you wish there were more films with them as lead cast. Here, Viggo Mortensen gives a great performance as this genuinely good fellow who always tries to do what’s best for his family. Mortensen has always been an appealing, versatile actor, but here he discovers untold layers of humor to lean in to Tony’s alternately grating and hilarious personality.
Playing off Mortensen’s expansive lack of self-consciousness, Mahershala Ali is all controlled interior, communicating as much in a glance or a raised finger as with a pages-long monologue. People love his music and the talent he has to offer, but don’t necessarily care for the color of his skin or who he truly is. Linda Cardelini also provides good support throughout. On the whole, ‘The Green Book’ is a funny, heart-warming and illuminating film uplifted by the excellent performances from the leads.
Directed – Peter Farrelly
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 130 minutes