Movie Review: ‘Green Book’
Plot: Loosely based on a true story, director Peter Farrelly’s film explores the friendship between pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as they travel through the deep south on a concert tour in 1962.
Review: At its heart, Green Book is one of those crowd-pleaser films that while occasionally formulaic, hits all the right notes. It’s inspirational, funny, charming, and provides some surface level social commentary that’s palatable and never heavy-handed.
Peter Farrelly (yes THAT Peter Farrelly of Dumb and Dumber) displays a deft directorial touch injecting true pathos into a story audiences have seen countless times. Similar to Paul Schrader’s work with First Reformed, I was not expecting this from the guy who once filmed a scene where Randy Quaid took a dump in a urinal. Farrelly breathes life into the oft overused and tired trope of the buddy road trip that contains echoes of Driving Miss Daisy. It helps that 1962 feels fully realized whether it’s the Copacabana in New York City, the Cadillac Sedan Deville Tony drives Don in, or a posh “whites-only” hotel in Alabama.
This was clearly a story Farrelly felt passionate about and it shows. Despite three people being credited with the script (often a red flag) the film is riddled with sharp, snappy dialogue especially from Mortensen’s Tony Lip. Green Book consistently put a smile on my face, whether it was Tony participating in a hot dog eating contest or Don being introduced to fried chicken for the first time. Yet Green Book also contains some truly heartfelt and poignant moments, especially the sequence where Don plays piano at a local black restaurant. The scene proves both cathartic and entertaining.
Green Book‘s strength lies in its two leads. I say two leads because although Ali is being touted as a supporting character in upcoming award shows, his Don Shirley is very much a co-lead. The chemistry between Mortensen and Ali shines through in every scene. There’s effortlessness to their banter and interaction that just feels natural and never forced. This film doesn’t work if you don’t buy into these two disparate characters’ friendship, but within moments of Shirley and Lip meeting I was fully invested. I sincerely hope the duo re-team for a future film.
Not surprisingly, the performances in Green Book (a reference to The Negro Motorists Green Book which provided welcome places for blacks to dine and sleep in the Jim Crow south) are top-notch. Ali continues to solidify himself as one of the top working actors today. He plays Shirley as a person estranged from his family and culture, living in a luxury apartment above Carnegie Hall. Shirley fears to be who he really is because he’s not sure WHO he is. He’s a man seemingly out of touch with his own people. (It’s important to note though that Shirley’s family does not believe this to be an accurate portrayal, going so far as to call this film a “symphony of lies.”) There’s a nuance to Ali’s performance, a measured emotional control as exacting as the piano he plays. It makes the moment where Shirley finally loses control resonate even more. This may be Ali’s best performance to date and he’s probably a shoe-in to get another Oscar nomination.
As great as Ali is however, Mortensen is on another level. Lip could easily have come off as a NYC “Fuggitabowit” caricature, but the Eastern Promises star elevates Lip’s character. Sporting a thick but believable Bronx accent, Lip is an overt racist (“You people love the fried chicken!”) that slowly changes his views as he’s exposed to Shirley and becomes friends with him. While that does seem a little cliché and tired, it never feels that way. There’s a real evolution to the character. While Mortensen’s interaction with Ali comprises the bulk of the film, I also loved the relationship between Tony and his wife Dolores played perfectly by Linda Cardellini. It was endearing and heartfelt and you really got the sense that Dolores was Lip’s True North…even if he can’t always express that sentiment in a letter. Like Ali, Mortensen is primed for another Oscar nomination.
Green Book‘s end does come off slightly pat and predictable however. Also if you’re looking for some deep dive on racism in the Jim Crow South you’ll be sorely disappointed. While there are several scenes of overt racism, they are easily overcome with an intervention by Lip. This unfortunately, is a reductive and inaccurate account about how to change racist institutions. To be fair though, this is a movie about friendship, not overcoming the horrors of racism. If you want something more challenging in that department 2018 has already given us BlacKkKlansman, The Hate U Give, and If Beale Street Could Talk.
Despite using a well-worn film trope, Green Book manages to rise above its flaws due in large part to Ali and Mortensen’s performances. Farrelly’s film comes off as an entertaining tale that never fails to put a smile on your face.
My rating System:
0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
Green Book: 8/10
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