Helmed by a thoughtful direction and supported by masterful performances, ‘Green Book’ is an immensely likable buddy film about self-discovery and enlightenment.
It’s quite surprising that one of the high caliber films competing this Oscar season comes from Peter Farelly, a director known for low-brow comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. His latest film, Green Book, can be classified as a buddy comedy – a true story of an unconventional friendship amid the racial divides in 1960s. It’s impressively paced for a 2-hour film and unlike Farelly’s previous body of work, this one has a restrained level of humor that doesn’t try too hard. Most importantly, this film excels on what other films fail nowadays – presenting a genuine character development.
At face value, the person who needed the most growth in this film is Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a brash chatterbox whose perception about racial equity is in dire need of enlightenment. In one scene, he’s visibly discomforted by the presence of black plumbers drinking lemonade in his house that he throws away their used glasses after. This transparent act of racism, though, doesn’t make him entirely evil. To prove a point, the film acquaints us with the social setting that Tony lives in – a neighborhood where Italian-Americans use derogatory terms like “eggplant” to refer to black people. On a macro level, the American nation is still in a war against itself when it comes to accepting racial diversity.
Tony may lack the class and patience when it comes to social relations but his thuggish and street smart ways makes him the perfect person to be the driver/bodyguard/personal assistant to African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who’s about to embark on a 2-month concert tour. Obviously, this is not a desirable job for Tony – a white person serving for a black person will evoke plenty stares of disapproval – but as a family man who has several mouths to feed, he must be willing to swallow his pride for the right price.
Essential for their Southern trip is “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” a traveler guidebook on the list of restaurants and motels that cater to black people. Meanwhile, Tony and Don also have to navigate their differences and the prejudices they’ll face along the way. Farelly gets a lot of mileage from both men’s contrasting manners. Opposed to Tony, Don is a refined person whose reserved energy only comes into surface when he’s playing the piano. There’s little common ground between the two but their frequent interactions inevitably cause them to reshape each other’s disposition and beliefs. Tony teaches Don how to eat Kentucky fried chicken, while the latter teaches him how to write poetic letters for his wife. Gradually, the two earn each other’s vote of trust and confidence.
The main pleasure of Green Book comes from watching the natural chemistry and excellent performances of Mortensen and Ali. It’s both hilarious and heartwarming to see them engage in clever banter while simultaneously get on each others’ nerves. Mortensen gains a lot of weight for the role and looks nothing like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings while Ali exudes a sophisticated exterior with hints of internal turmoil. The film’s pathos happens during a rain-soaked scene where Don expresses his resentment for ‘being too black for white people yet being too white for black people.’ The script rightfully earns this heartbreaking moment and both actors prove that they well-deserve their respective Academy award nominations for that scene alone.
One may point out that the more interesting character here is Don Shirley and that easily shows because Green Book is partly a biopic of a music icon told in Tony’s point of view. The reason for such direction may be due to convenience – part of the writing team is Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, who seems to have drawn inspiration from his father’s stories. While this choice may deprive its viewers of a more in-depth character study, limiting it to Tony’s POV allows the viewers to witness a more organic burgeoning of friendship.
The depiction of racism here is much contained to the upper middle-class. Specifically, the film shows the indignities that Don has suffered as a “guest-of-honor,” highlighting the fact that no wealth or education can spare any black man from the existing racial norms and policies at that time. This may just be a sliver to a larger narrative of Don’s life but then again, Green Book does not aim to show how racism was abolished and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be harrowing and hard-hitting – films like 12 Years a Slave and Selma are there for that matter. Above anything else, this film is about two people forging a lifelong bond.
Green Book is a moving film that reminds us that spending time with people outside our niche, even if only done through a movie screen, can be a rewarding and life-changing experience. It succeeds in portraying wildly different characters who overcome prejudice, realizing that they’re not so different at all. In these divisive and trying times, its universal themes of brotherhood and acceptance can be the film’s biggest takeaway.
4.5 out of 5 stars