Never a Dull Moment
At face value, Green Book sounds extremely formulaic and predictable. It is story about two mismatched men forced together by necessity rather than choice, who gradually become close friends. Add into the mix the over-trodden turf of the road trip as the method in which these two men become close, and it seems the film is destined for mediocrity. The fact that it is anything but is a huge testament to everyone involved.
Green Book is the true story of Tony Lip, a working-class Italian American who is forced to search for work after the club where he acts as a bouncer is temporarily shut down. He is soon hired by African-American professional pianist Don Shirley as a driver, instructed to drive Shirley on a concert tour of the Deep South in the build up to Christmas. Set in 1962, Tony’s real job however, is to protect Shirley from the racial prejudice which burns brightly in the South. But we soon realise that Shirley wishes to maintain an aura of passivity in face of the hatred he receives, in hope of dispelling even a fragment of racism in Southern America.
Clearly, the racial contrast between the characters drives the tale, both figuratively and literally. Tony is a confident and brash man, who eats a lot and cares little for African-Americans. His evident racism is almost caricatured at the start of the film and likewise, with the introduction of Shirley his evident elegance is almost pushed too far. Yet these extremes are instantly dispelled when the road trip begins. Viggo Mortensen is brilliant as Tony, with his rowdy Italian accent and mannerisms never ceasing to be entertaining, yet never slipping into vulgarity. On the flip side, Mahershala Ali grows into the character of Shirley, becoming a figure who is both stubborn yet determined in equal measure.
Following a funny scene involving Kentucky Fried Chicken, the sheer chemistry between the pair starts to make Green Book soar. Their constant bickering is always enjoyable to watch but the chemistry the actors hold makes you truly believe that Tony and Shirley are, in a very strange way, destined for each other.
Gradually, when obstacles arise, the two deal with them together. The ‘green book’ referenced in the title of the film was a real book which dictated places where black people could stay in the South. There are moments when Shirley strays from these destinations in search of a bar to quench his severe drinking problem. In every instance Tony is there to bail him out, acting as an overweight guardian angel to the fragile pianist. In return, Shirley begins to help Tony write more romantic and better spelt letters to his wife. These acts might sometimes seem small, but they are what gradually ties the duo together as they become interdependent. This cliché of each character helping the other has been played out before but here it feels new, in large part due to the electric performances of Mortensen and Ali.
With all this mention of the actors, one must not forget the director too. Peter Farrelly made his name as the director of Dumb and Dumber and has always had his roots in the comedy genre. Consequently, Green Book’s dramatic substance is a step into the unknown for Farrelly but his ability to navigate this successfully is commendable. Yet even in such a film as this one, Farrelly has still managed to drop in a few moments of brash humour which hark back to his prior works. The footprint of the director is there but, in many ways, Green Book might be his best work to date.
Green Book is a charming tale of two opposites who gradually become close friends. The story structure itself isn’t new, but the performances and desire to never be too serious avoids dropping the film in deep criticisms of racial politics. Farrelly is more interested in depicting a relationship between two men than depicting the state of the Deep South in the 1960s, and the film is all the better for it.
– Stefan Frost