Quick Hit: Predictable but heart-warming and feel good.
Let’s just get this out there guys – I’m a straight, white, middle-class male. They don’t get more majority than I do they? So when it comes to writing something like Green Book, from Peter Farrelly (yes, of Dumb and Dumber fame), I try to ensure that I keep in mind that my opinion is coming from my perspective, but that there are others in mind. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always stated that movie reviewing is a subjective genre, despite the fact there are many technical aspects that you can drill down to. Long story short, I liked Green Book, quite a bit, despite its predictable nature and questionable historical accuracy.
Green Book, a reference to the travel guide for African Americans in the Jim Crow American South, follows Tony Vallelonga, or, as he’s known, Tony the Lip (Viggo Mortensen). He’s your classic cliché Italian-American – he talks fast in a mush mouth kind of way, he eats food ravenously, and he’s violent and solves problems quickly. Early scenes quickly establish him as racist against a variety of non-whites, going as far to throw glasses away when they are drank from by some black plumbers that visit his home. But shortly thereafter, he gets a job offer – he is to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) around on his concert tour of the South. This means he’s not just a driver, but a protector and a solver of problems. He only gets paid if Shirley shows up to early performance and plays them. Shirley is nearly Tony’s opposite – he’s sophisticated, eloquent, well-spoken, and of course, a black man.
This immediately sets up an Odd Couple dynamic between the two, and the dynamic gives the movie so much of its enjoyment. The Farrelly brothers have made a movie like this before, and so it looks like Peter spun off from Kingpin, an underrated comedy about a bowling Amish man (Randy Quaid) and his hard teacher (Woody Harrelson in top scummy with heart form). There is also are elements borrowed from previous movies, like the road comedy that presents itself as Tony and Dr. Shirley travel across the country together, slowly learning and merging to become closer to each other and learn.
The downside to this movie, is that we’ve seen most of its twists and turns before. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable – far from it, the acting is superb whenever these two men are on screen. It just makes it predictable, and it’s really only the performances that keep it from being a shoulder shrug of a feel-good about a white savior. Mortensen, who reportedly gained fifty pounds for the role, is terrific, nailing the accent and mannerisms of a man whose heart is big but whose surroundings have been bigger for the most part. Ali gives a quieter performance that is no less powerful, imbuing Shirley with a grace and strength that goes much further than the words he speaks, particularly at times in the movie when he is discriminated against.
I think what I enjoyed most about this movie was how it wasn’t afraid to throw lines at you occasionally to make you uncomfortable. One of the best scenes involves the first tour stop, and Tony playing dice games outside with the other chauffeurs (all African-Americans). Shirley is furious and Tony is confused as to why – after all, he’s interacting with other colored people. Shirley replies, “They have to stay outside – you chose to”. These powerful moments of realization are sprinkled throughout the movie, and that’s why I think a lot of the controversy surrounding it might be a bit overblown. I understand we have a long way to go in race relations, but movies sometimes give us an idealized experience. And that’s ok, as long as we learn from them.
I’m giving Green Book an “A-“.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"