Green Book, 2018.
Directed by Peter Farrelly.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, Sebastian Maniscalco, P.J. Byrne, Brian Stepanek, Iqbal Theba, Tom Virtue, Paul Sloan, and Nick Vallelonga.
A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
Early on in Green Book (the first solo effort from writer/director Peter Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly brothers, a duo celebrated for some comedy treasures such as There’s Something About Mary, alongside some true clunkers not to be named) we are introduced to (yes, not only have the partners separated for this one, but Peter Farrelly is entering biographical drama- comedy territory all by himself) classical pianist Donald Shirley living a seemingly exotic lifestyle above New York City’s famous Carnegie Hall. His abode contains a real-life elephant tusk, every nook and cranny of the place is decorated with design and color, and the artist himself dresses elegantly. One would rightfully assume, despite the racial turmoil of the 1960s, he is living the high life and must be reasonably happy.
As some of you may know, money does not actually buy happiness. Planning a courageous musical tour journeying across the highly racist and dangerous deep south in hopes of altering perceptions, Donald Shirley (played here by an outstanding Mahershala Ali, successfully able to convey the necessary mixed emotions of being not black enough to enjoy hanging around his own race, but also not white enough to be accepted in most circles) employs Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Vallelonga AKA Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer down on his luck and in need of a job after the Copacabana nightclub is shut down for repairs. During their first meeting, a few things become immediately clear; Donald has a bit of a high and mighty, proper vibe to his personality that is the polar opposite of Tony’s more outspoken, impolite, hotheaded ways (naturally, this dynamic right here makes for some good buddy road trip humor), and that despite the wealth on display this musician might actually be lonely.
There’s also another elephant in the room (besides the actual aforementioned elephant tusk); Tony is prejudice, no question about it. An introductory segment shows the loving husband and father disposing of some glassware after a pair of African-Americans fixing up their kitchen head home, simply because to him, their touch must have tainted them. Now, thankfully this is done with a degree of subtlety, as is the manner in which his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini, who may not get to do much once the mismatched, soon to be buddies hit the road, but deserves some praise for the surprised yet happy expressions she makes whatever Tony sheds another layer of his racism) takes the glassware out of the trash.
Now, I don’t know where I was or what I was doing the day this project was announced (I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the movie existed until I saw buzz for its Toronto premiere), but if I was reading headlines about Peter Farrelly tackling sensitive issues such as race, class, identity, and family wrapped up in what is basically another variation of Driving Miss Daisy, I like to think I would have smashed my own head into my desktop. When Peter’s writing is sharp and intelligently witty, the movies he has assisted in crafting are staples of the entire comedy genre, so much so that director Judd Apatow made a statement on social media that There’s Something About Mary is one of the most important scripts to study for anyone looking to break into comedy filmmaking. With that said, their penchant for crude humor has also yielded some atrocious results, and if I’m being completely honest, they haven’t really made anything good in a hot minute. Why should anyone trust Peter Farrelly telling this socially relevant story inspired by a true friendship?
It turns out, Green Book is fine; there is carefully navigated humor in Tony’s narrow viewpoint of Donald’s characteristics (a set piece involving Kentucky Fried Chicken could have gone horribly wrong, but here is rendered amusing and with some substance to the film’s themes), while watching Donald use his impressive mental dictionary to ghostwrite some letters for Tony to mail back home to his wife (the tour will keep them both on the road for two months, with them possibly returning home just in the nick of time for Christmas morning) who is, not the most articulate person around, elicits many of the biggest laughs.
Green Book isn’t just about forcing two very different people on the road together, though, as it explores compromise in some thoughtful ways. There is the sense that while Donald is a very dignified human being, he may be too dignified for his own good, and unwilling to take a stand against oppression. Meanwhile, Tony will give others a piece of his mind, but unwisely usually takes a violent approach. Essentially, the narrative and characters seem to be in search of that middle ground which arises during some crowd-pleasing final sequences. With that said, lingering over every frame and exchange of dialogue is the sense that this is a film strictly made to garner some awards attention. The script doesn’t confront the harsh realities of racism in any fashion that will stick with audiences, instead opting for something breezy, lighthearted, and charming. There are fleeting moments where Donald faces cruelty against certain white people, but it is all sanitized. Even the film’s original score is far too sappy, although one can argue that it does fit with the sappiness of the final 15 minutes.
However, maybe that’s a good thing considering Peter Farrelly is, as previously mentioned, drifting out of his comfort zone. If you take how uneducated Tony can be at times, Green Book does occasionally feel like Driving Miss Daisy by way of Dumb and Dumber. It definitely helps that the real-life son of Tony Lip (who went on to become an actor appearing in such notable works as The Sopranos) Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script; maybe there are some real stories peppered throughout this dramatized embellishment of the road trip. Additionally, there are some living members of the family popping in as minor supporting characters, which is another nice touch. It might not be noticeable unless one does some research, but to the naked eye, it probably does elevate the authenticity of whatever is true about this experience.
Also, Green Book is worth purchasing a ticket for just for the numerous absurd ways Tony finds to eat food, whether it be a hot dog eating contest with $50 on the line or folding an entire pizza over and taking a bite out of it like it’s a hamburger. And then there’s, as mentioned, the KFC scene; it’s akin to a magic trick and a testament to how well Peter Farrelly can write comedy when something that easily could have come across as racist garbage ends up being one of the most charming bits in the entire movie. More than about an unlikely friendship and overcoming prejudices, Green Book is a thoughtful examination of racial identity. Mahershela Ali also knows how to gracefully pound away on that piano. It may be safe, but there’s also not a false note in Green Book.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com