Green Book, 2018.
Directed by Peter Farrelly.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimeter Marinov, Mike Hatton and Iqbal Theba.
In the 1960s, an uncouth Italian-American gets a job as the chauffeur for a black pianist as he takes part in a tour of the Deep South.
Out of nowhere, Peter Farrelly is a frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The man behind Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Movie 43 – the worst film ever made – has suddenly pivoted to prestige with Green Book. The film is a gentle, crowd-pleasing tale of unlikely friendship and racial politics in 1960s America and for the most part it’s solid, even though it’s about as subtle as a piano falling down a flight of stairs.
Much of the praise for the film has focused on the performances, and it’s certainly true that Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali disappear into their characters. Ali, especially, is terrific as the classy jazz pianist Don Shirley, embarking with steely determination on a tour of the Deep South, despite the likely doomed nature of the undertaking. It’s a controlled performance that, like Ali’s Oscar-winning turn in Moonlight, mostly steers clear of grandstanding moral righteousness. One of the movie’s great highlights is a scene in which Shirley eats fried chicken for the first time, regarding the greasy foodstuff with a hilarious combination of disgust and intrigue.
Mortensen, meanwhile, is positioned as the polar opposite of Shirley. While Ali’s character lives alone, Tony Vallelonga is part of a huge Italian-American family and he has the sort of personality that fills a room. It’s a big, showy performance that largely consists of Mortensen’s experiments in how much food he can fit into his fist and then into his mouth, like the antithesis of an M&S advert. There’s a charm to the lunkish Tony, not least in the delightfully clumsy and ineloquent letters he writes home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) while they’re on the road. This charm, however, feels a little contrived and he seems to have no problem accepting his role as Shirley’s driver, despite his own racism. There’s a huge jump from a man who throws glassware away after black people have used it to a bloke willing to step in when drunken racists threaten Shirley in a bar.
The answer, it would seem, lies in the fact that Tony’s son, Nick, is one of the co-writers and producers of Green Book. As such, the film smooths off many of Tony’s rougher and less woke edges in order to enhance the rosy glow of the movie’s sun-baked sort-of-reality. Indeed, there’s a rather calculated feel to Sean Porter’s oh-so-warm cinematography that steers the audience in favour of buying into the film’s argument – disputed by Shirley’s family – that these two men were firm friends. In this context, Ali’s character starts to look like an example of the tired ‘magical negro’ trope, designed solely to make Tony realise how fortunate he is to have loving family around him.
It’s also impossible to divorce the film from its context in the real world. Since it became an Oscar season frontrunner, the movie has been dogged by multiple controversies that call into question its credentials – not least a since deleted tweet from Nick Vallelonga asserting that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11 and the resurfacing of quotes in which Farrelly admitted to flashing his penis at actors on his sets. Such problematic revelations only serve to make the movie ring slightly false in terms of its progressive credentials.
Taken entirely on its own merits as a movie, though, Green Book is an uplifting tale of friendship that’s anchored by two impressive central performances and with the ability to raise a tear by the end. It is, however, a somewhat lightweight and forgettable experience characterised by lapses into overwrought sentimentality (“it takes courage to change people’s hearts”, says one character) and the bizarre spectacle of Mortensen’s often distractingly elephantine performance. Sometimes he turns the needle a little too far and by the time he folds an entire pizza in half to consume it, it becomes tough to believe he isn’t just playing a live-action Homer Simpson.
It says a lot about the movie when that’s the main image I remember.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.