A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2018

GREEN BOOK jjj
   

2018, PG-13, 130 mins.

 

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip  /  Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley  /  Linda Cardellini as Dolores  /  Don Stark as Jules Podell  /  Sebastian Maniscalco as Johnny Venere  /  Tom Virtue as Morgan Anderson  /  Brian Stepanek as Graham Kindell  /  Joe Cortese as Joey Loscudo

Directed by Peter Farrelly  /  Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly

 

 

 

I can only begin to imagine the pitch meeting for GREEN BOOK: 

"It's like a reverse engineered DRIVING MISS DAISY meets THE ODD COUPLE...and it'll be a funny, yet sobering take on race relations in segregationist America in the early 60s...and it'll be directed by one half of the team that made DUMB AND DUMBER, KINGPIN, and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY..." 

Overt sarcasm aside, GREEN BOOK somewhat miraculously elevates itself above laughable descriptions by emerging as one of the premiere entertaining crowd pleasing films of 2018.  And, yes, it does navigate down some tricky and thorny tonal ranges, from odd couple/road trip comedy to a solemn fact based drama about Civil Rights era racism in the deep south.  And, yes, the fact that it's directed by Peter Farrelly (making a very rare solo filmmaking effort), who usually partakes in lowbrow comedies, is all the more staggering.  

Two things ultimately make GREEN BOOK so inviting and well put together: (1) It takes viewers on a journey through some very, very tough subject matter and does so without shying away from its inherent horrors and (2) it also manages to be sublimely hysterical, showcasing stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (both usually dramatic actors) adeptly traversing through their thankless roles, mixing equal parts hearty laughs and heart-wrenching pathos.  They represent one of the most pitch perfectly assembled pairings of actors in any film from the year. 

GREEN BOOK'S story takes "inspiration" from the real life tale of African American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian American chauffeur/bodyguard Tony Vellelonga, who drove through the Deep South on a concert tour in the early 60's during a particularly fractured and problematic time for race relations in the country.  There is an easy case to be made that Farrelly is making a pretty paint-by-numbers feel-good movie about a pair of mismatched men - with deep suspicions of the other because of their race - who learn quick lessons during their travels to overcome their personal boundaries and become bosom buddies in the process.  The formulaic underpinnings of this film - written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes, and Vallelonga's son Nick - are pretty obvious: It's beyond easy to predict with pinpoint accuracy where this film is heading at every turn in chronicling two people from polar opposite ends of the race fence discovering a mutual respect for one another.  If your excuse the pun, GREEN BOOK is pretty black and white on an execution front, but Farrelly's laid back, but deft direction and the completely winning performances by Ali and Mortensen inevitably make the film far better and more rewarding than the sum of its few nagging flaws.   That, and GREEN BOOK is so bloody charming throughout that it's really hard to take a disliking to it. 

 

 

We're introduced early on to Mortensen's Tony, who finds himself mostly employed as an enforcer to use his muscle to solve multiple problems for his bosses.  This lower class Bronx residing guy would be aptly described as a loveable loudmouth that doesn't have a flair for words, not to mention that he has questionable opinions of people of different ethnicities (in an early scene in the film he very carefully throws away perfectly good drinking glasses that were given to two black plumbers after they finished work on his sink).  Tony is not a vile cretin, though, seeing as he would rather, for example, pawn one his prized watches for cash to put food on his family's table than doing morally dicey jobs for the local mob that frequently try to recruit him.  He's a bigot, to be fair, but does have some semblance of a conscience buried beneath that facade.

Unfortunately for Tony, his bouncer job at the Copacabana is finished with the club closing down for two months, leaving him and his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) desperate for some cash for the Christmas season to come.  Salvation comes when he begrudgingly takes a pretty lucrative $125 week job as Don Shirley's (Ali) driver for a two month concert tour.  I say begrudgingly because Tony doesn't like being away from his family and on the road for two months, let alone having to work for a wealthy man whose race he has an established disliking of.  Nevertheless, Tony agrees, and the remainder of the film morphs into a road trip tale showing the misadventures of this pair, with both being exposed to the toxic prejudices of the very people that have hired Dr. Shirley in the first place to perform. 

GREEN BOOK takes its title from a special guide - given to Tony - containing addresses and locations of safe segregated hotels in the American South, which, in turn, will make Don's concert tour go as smoothly and without altercations as possible.  Tony learns early on that there will be substantially more to driving this celebrated and respected pianist around than he bargained for.  This also helps to establish the compelling relationship dynamic between Tony and Don.  Tony definitely has his fair share of unfair opinions of black people in general, which mostly stems from his own upbringing and life as a street thug.  Yet, he does grow to see the genius that Don possesses as a musician and a man of refined diction and taste.  Don himself - who lives in a lavish and opulent apartment on top of Carnegie Hall - is clearly on the exact opposite end of the economic spectrum of Tony.  Plus, he's an educated man that's well mannered, groomed, and spoken.  Their opposing natures, though, do lead to some unexpectedly hilarious scenes, especially when Tony lambastes Don for never having heard of Chubby Checker or Little Richard and - the horror! - his distaste for Kentucky Fried Chicken (which Don informs him he has never tried).  This culminates in Tony making an emergency pit stop at a KFC in Kentucky with predictably amusing results. 

While Don learns a newfound appreciation of fried foods and the musical work of other popular black musicians, Tony takes an educational arc as well, as he slowly has his eyes opened to the reality of the truly toxic racism that Don has to experience while on tour.  This is a man that has played for sitting U.S. presidents and is revered as being one the finest musicians in his field, but because he's black he's still subjected to the horrible segregationist policies of the south.  The deeper the pair heads south the more shocking the humiliations that Don has to suffer through, much to Tony's ever-increasing dismay.  This also leads to some added class/race friction between the two, with Tony even lashing out at the uptight and mannered doctor that he's less in touch with his race - most of whom were on the lower end of the social class ladder of the time - than he is.  "I'm more blacker than you!" Tony screams out at him.  During a particularly sad moment during a hellish rainstorm, the beleaguered Don corrects Tony by relaying his unique Catch-22 problem with being a successful black man in America.  "If I'm not black enough and if I'm not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I!?"

GREEN BOOK isn't a feel-good film painted with egregiously manipulative strokes, nor does it sheepishly shy away from the social ills of its era that Tony and Don have to wade through.  The film is quite level headed to both characters, with each challenging each other for defying traditional racial stereotypes.  Tony narrow mindedly is shocked when Don - as mentioned - professes to hate fried chicken (and yes, it's a stereotypical characteristic of black people in general that they all love it), whereas Don is annoyed as to why Tony automatically expects him to like it because he thinks all black people do (later on, Don becomes enamored with eating the most famous fast food chicken in the world).  Don and Tony find a manner of reaching a difficult to define middle ground area on their misguided opinions of each other, and the gradual thawing of their dicey working relationship that eventually segues into budding friendship is conventionally, structured, but it still manages to brim with dramatic immediacy and authenticity.  And I don't think GREEN BOOK is as guilty of engaging in white savoir motifs as some have led on.  There are concrete vignettes where Tony does comes to Don's rescue, but there are also other moments when the good doctor also plays the hero to Tony as well. 

Maybe a comedic director like Farrelly is just what a film like this needed.  Parts of GREEN BOOK are knee-slappingly funny because Farrelly knows how to drum of the absurd comedic take on Don and Tony's union, but that's not to say he's reticent to showing the inherent darkness of their trek across a mostly unwelcoming American south that will pay a musical maestro like Don to perform, but won't let him, for example, use the same hotels, bathrooms, or bars as white people.  Farrelly shows a remarkable affinity for balancing the film's shrewd observational comedy with a solemn examination of early 60's bigotry that can make even an affluent and educated man like Don a helpless victim.  Farrelly is assisted, of course, by the impossibly great performances by Ali and Mortensen, the former coming in hot after his Oscar win for his work in MOONLIGHT, who once again delivers an award nomination worthy performance as a man of deep pride and refinement that has to work overtime to not let out his ferociously internalized rage about having to make ends meet in a society that hates his kind.  And Mortensen astounds as well, mostly because - in a lesser actor's hands - the role of Tony could have been tainted as a broad Italian caricature.  With 30 pounds of extra fat on his frame and a syrupy thick accent, Mortensen is sensational at relaying a man that grows to steadily realize that there exists some larger problems in the world that he can't punch his way out of. 

Both actors, if anything, make these characters simmer with subtle complexity, even perhaps when the screenplay lacks restraint and subtlety altogether (they also reinforce a movie truism that dramatic actors are often a good fit for comedy because they simply don't try hard to be funny).  It's the wonderfully realized chemistry that this pair has that makes GREEN BOOK shine as brightly as it does, and the film's end game of telling an inspirational true story about the inherent goodness in people during sinister times seems timely even today.  It's a conventionally engineered piece of audience placating entertainment, but the film has an awfully big heart and is really effective in areas where it needs to.   It's the gentleness of spirit of GREEN BOOK overall that won me over big time.  And you're unlikely to find a better performance tandem in the year that was in Ali and Mortensen leading the charge and winning our hearts. 

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