DIR: Peter Farrelly • WRI: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly • PRO: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Charles B. Wessler • DOP: Sean Porter • ED: Patrick J. Don Vito • DES: Tim Galvin • MUS: Kris Bowers • CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Surprise winner at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – beating the much hyped A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma – was Green Book from Peter Farrelly, director of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. However, its victory is less shocking having seen the movie, which feels like an old-school throwback to the feel-good comedy-dramas the Oscars used to reward.
Based on a true story and set in 1962, Viggo Mortensen stars as Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga, a New York bouncer and famed ‘bullshit artist’. After his nightclub is closed for renovations, he lands a job as driver and security for famed black pianist Don Shirley (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali). Together the two tour America’s deep south where Shirley faces repeated racist abuse. The title derives from the 20th century guidebook for black travellers to help them find motels and restaurants which would accept them.
Though featuring handsome period décor, Green Book is not the most formally ambitious film. Instead, it’s essentially a character piece, centring on the chalk and cheese relationship between Don and Tony. On this level, the comedy-drama soars. If you are going to cast someone to play the biggest American-Italian stereotype ever – although to be fair the real-life Lip did wind up being cast in The Sopranos and writing a cookbook called Shut Up and Eat! – get Viggo Mortenson. The Lord of the Rings actor went impressively method with the role putting on 50 pounds. It shows with the Danish-American feeling remarkably comfortable in his character’s skin, even getting an opportunity to flex his fluency in Italian.
Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali – whether he is playing a politician in House of Cards or a comic-book villain in Luke Cage – just exudes intelligence. He is perfect casting to play this incarnation of Shirley, a savant-like prodigy whose intellect and musical abilities alienate him from virtually everybody. Because of his wealth and education, he faces hostility from black people in a lower-social-strata. On top of this, he endures racism from the ordinary white person. The only people who seem to accept him are the rich people for whom he performs. But even then, the race element creeps in. He is not allowed to eat in the restaurants he plays, banned from using the same toilets as the guests. Ali’s performance is like a cocktail – a combination of self-confidence, quiet sadness and bubbling anger, the latter just building throughout the film.
Green Book is a film whose rough edges have been sanded off to appeal to a broader demographic. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit set in the same decade, one doesn’t really get the sense of the fear a black person would feel being pulled over by a white cop – particularly in the Deep South. Instead, the movie is more focused on exposing the hypocrisy and pointlessness of the US’ Jim Crow laws.
As the movie flinches away from the horrors of life for black people of the era, it leans more into the potential for comedy in the odd-couple pairing of Don and Tony. While this could be cack-handed in lesser hands, Farrelly, along with co-writers Nick Vallelonga (Lip’s son) and Brian Hayes Currie, make the relationship emotionally engaging. The two begin as polar opposites, Shirley repulsed by Lip’s lack of manners, Lip irritated by Shirley’s condescending tone. However, as the movie continues, they grow closer with Don admiring Tony’s courage and Tony becoming awed with Don’s musical ability and increasingly repulsed with the way he is treated.
Occasionally, the bantering sways too broad – jokes about ‘Titsburgh’ and fried chicken could have been trimmed out – but for the most part the script is snappy. Some moments – like watching Mortensen fold-up an entire pizza and eat it like a giant calzone – are laugh out funny. And the emotional beats, such as Don helping Tony to write more elegantly to his wife (Linda Cardellini, proving once again she is quietly one of the Best Actresses around) tug on the heartstrings.
Everything about Green Book – despite the social issues of the time in which the drama is set – is designed to be an easy watch. And it is. It suffers from an overstretched third act. It annoyingly tries to add more tension and work in a scene which could be summed up as ‘not all white people’ involving a nice Caucasian cop. The latter is irritating given the fact that Tony as well as the white members in Don’s musical trio already serve to make that point. However, aside from this, Green Book’s greatest credit is it is 130 minutes long but feels like 90.