Whilst there’s no doubt that Green Book is entertaining, this “inspired by a true friendship” tale (as proclaimed by the promotional material) commits the cardinal sin of detailing said true story in the wrong manner, or, more correctly, the wrong perspective.
Directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, one half of the brotherly duo that helmed such projects as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, and *shudders* Movie 43) the film harks back to the 1960’s when acclaimed pianist Dr. Don Shirley (so graciously performed by Mahershala Ali) recruited boisterous Bronx bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to chauffeur him across America’s Deep South on his planned musical tour.
Shirley, as a coloured man, practically expects trouble, and it’s because of this that he has specifically chosen Tony, at once knowing he’ll use his brash muscle to solve any run-ins and, perhaps, change his racist views in the process; an early scene highlights Tony’s aversion to people of colour when he disposes of two of his own drinking glasses when coloured tradesman drink from them after accepting the kind gesture of a beverage from Tony’s far-more understanding wife (Linda Caredellini).
Taking its title from “The Negro Motorist Green Book”, a guide that explained which lodgings were accommodating to black people travelling throughout the US, Green Book no doubt hopes it comes across as some kind of profound, inspiring feature that drives home how one’s own racist views can be altered. It’s a well-intentioned film without question, but Farrelly and his co-writers (Brian Currie and Tony Vallelonga’s own son Nick Vallelonga) frame the film around Tony, with the climax being that he needs to be home by Christmas so he can spend time with his family. Shirley is a fascinating man, and this particular friendship is worthy of being told, so it’s his story that feels worth telling.
Whilst there’s a certain joy in seeing Mortensen ease up on-screen (the actor has seldom played any of his roles for laughs), there’s a gross unsubtle manner to his delivery, with his Tony coming off like a Sopranos-type caricature; you’d almost expect him to drop an “I’m walkin’ here!” amongst his dialogue. All the worse is that Ali is playing second fiddle in a story where his Shirley is the driving force. Thankfully though the actor (who rightfully took home the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe earlier this year, and is likely to repeat that success with his recently announced Oscar nomination in the same category) is so beautifully understated and calibrated in his demeanour, that any of the film’s shortcomings are forgiven off the back of his presence alone.
Whilst the controversy that has surrounded the film is just, and there are moments that are uncomfortably underhanded – such as a scene where Tony near-berates Shirley for being unfamiliar with certain black singers, or that he doesn’t eat fried chicken – it’s still difficult to completely argue against Green Book‘s intentions as it does declare that racism is, y’know, bad (duh!).
It may be misguided in its attempt to sell Shirley’s story, but as another vehicle to showcase how incredibly gentlemanly Ali is as a performer, Green Book is something of a success.
About Green Book
Starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, GREEN BOOK is the uplifting true story of a friendship that defied the odds. Set in 1962, the film follows Italian-American Tony Lip (Mortensen), who is hired to chauffer African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) on a concert tour through the Deep South.
Green Book (M) is screening in Australian theatres from January 24th 2019.