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‘Green Book’ Review: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali Triumph in a Touching Update to ‘Driving Miss Daisy’
Peter Farrelly breaks away from his lowbrow comedy roots with this sentimental dramedy about a tough white guy defending a black pianist in the Deep South.
Sep 11, 2018
[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.]
A sly corrective to “Driving Miss Daisy,” the sentimental dramedy “Green Book” is not the sort of movie one might expect from one half of the directing duo behind “Dumb and Dumber.” But director Peter Farrelly’s endearing story about a tough Italian-American from the Bronx shepherding an acclaimed black pianist from New York City through the Deep South in 1962 nails the formula for a touching and meaningful look at race and class in America, the likes of which studios rarely produce anymore. It’s an obvious but enjoyable period piece — and a throwback to another era of Hollywood filmmaking, resurrected in the 21st century with two of the best actors working today, who elevate this didactic form of storytelling above the market standard for schmaltz.
Proving that he can blend in with virtually any material at his disposal, Viggo Mortensen adds another notch to his chameloenesque abilities as the streetwise Frank Anthony Vallelonga, who prefers the casual monicker Tony Lip. A no-nonsense guido willing to do anything to support the family in the community where he’s spent his entire life, Tony loses his gig at the Copacabana and suddenly needs a new source of employment. Summoned to a palatial apartment above Carnegie Hall, the feisty character finds himself faced down by affluent pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who offers Tony a two-month gig to drive him on a concert tour through several southern states.
The pair’s odd-couple chemistry immediately takes hold, with the straight-faced musician’s highbrow temperament striking Tony as a complete mystery. He’s equally confused about Don’s assumption that Tony would have a problem with black people. “Just the other day, my wife and I had a couple coloreds over … for drinks,” says Tony. He gets the gig.
So yes, “Green Book” is one of those by-the-numbers feel-good stories about two men from different worlds uniting over universal hardships and overcoming the biases of a less enlightened time. But Farrelly tackles the material with a confidence that makes each beat count, as the story plays up the offbeat dynamic between the two through a series of complications, most of which call for Tony to take charge as Don faces numerous racist developments over the course of their road trip. Despite occasionally overplaying the “white savior” archetype, the screenplay maintains a clear sense of both characters, in part because it draws on a true story. The screenplay is co-written by the real-life Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who appears to have drawn from his father’s vivid memories of the experience. It could have made a charming documentary; instead, it’s an actor’s showcase.
The movie’s best scenes unfold as Tony speeds down the highway, running his mouth, while Don’s subdued facade gradually shows some cracks as Tony’s charm sets in. As the charismatic man introduces Tony to fried chicken and cranks up the radio, the pair confront internalized biases from both sides of the aisle. The gap between Tony’s understanding of Don’s educated mindset and Don’s cultured standards yield constant punchlines. Shocked that Don’s never heard of Lil Richard and Aretha Franklin, Tony declares, “These are your people!” When Don responds, “You have a very narrow perception of me,” Tony chuckles with the reply, “I’m good, right?”
At times, “Green Book” feels as if it was made several decades ago, and falls short of foregrounding Don’s hardships so much as Tony’s relationship to them. On several occasions, he jumps into action to save Don from various forms of bigotry — a brawl at an all-white bar, crude police officers, and a segregated restaurant all figure into a plot that grows tiresome after several variations on the same complication. However, Farrelly manages to juggle these scenes with a delicate balance of humor and bittersweet vibes that actually do surface in many of the lowbrow comedies he directed with his brother Bobby. Remove the slapstick, and there’s not that big of a gap between the emotional trajectory of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Green Book,” both of which deal with overconfident men who get in touch with their sensitive side. The new movie’s schematic approach builds out Tony’s gentler side with his constant attempts to mail letters to his wife (a warm Linda Cardellini), struggling to describe anything of note until Don takes over the composition.
The bond between the two men starts to fray right on cue, though there’s a decent amount of authenticity to the way they talk through the tensions between them once they bubble to the surface. Mortensen inhabits the character with a kind of authenticity that endows some of the more heavy-handed showdowns with surprising depth (particularly in a monologue where he tells Ali, “I’m blacker than you are”), and Ali’s major studio role since his Oscar win for “Moonlight” allows him to transform a part that could have instantly fallen into a crude caricature and make it real. A brilliant artist incapable of fully expressing the many facets of his personality, Don sits at the cross-section of America’s evolving attitudes toward race, but the movie wisely avoids overplaying that symbolism by simply letting the story move along to its rousing conclusion.
Produced with the elegance and economy of classic studio production, “Green Book” glides along with a jazzy soundtrack and vivid period details. Cinematographer Sean Porter, whose credits include Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” and “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” excels at capturing middle America as a rich tapestry of smoky bars and empty lots. He also gives the musical performances their due, setting the stage for an extraordinary climactic piano jam that does a better job of achieving the movie’s cross-cultural message than any of the spats building up to it.
As if it hadn’t yet hit every trope on schedule, “Green Book” arrives at a good-natured Christmas finale, where the coda has been telegraphed long before it arrives. Nevertheless, the movie maintains an unapologetic air as it goes through the usual motions, and Farrelly never loses grasp of the welcoming tone. A chronicle of two men from opposing worlds finding common ground, “Green Book” works overtime to justify an easy win, and it’s hard not to appreciate the effort.
And a Review from Jonathan M.A. Ghaffar:
THE “GREEN BOOK” IN THE LAND OF RED, WHITE, BLACK AND BLUE
On Thanksgiving Day the wife and I went to see the film “Green Book” – a biopic about the relationship between Black world-class pianist Dr. Don Shirley (in a wonderfully nuanced performance by Mahershala Ali) and his Italian driver and bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (in a hilariously in-your-face portrayal by Viggo Mortensen). They first meet when Dr. Shirley hires Tony to accompany him on a concert tour that will take them through the Deep South in pre-civil rights 1962 America. The title of the film comes from the travel guide called a Green Book that African-Americans relied on to find Black-friendly restaurants, gas stations, entertainment and lodgings in an America where knowing where it was safe to go for food, gas, fun and sleep could mean the difference between a pleasant vacation and a racist nightmare ordeal that could end up costing you your life.
The wife and I both enjoyed the film – very impacting on so many levels because there were so many levels to the film. I encourage everyone to go see it. But I have to say I am dismayed at some of the comments and reviews that basically “talk trash” about certain aspects of the film, like saying it’s “White people making a movie about racism for White people,” or complaining that Don Shirley wasn’t portrayed correctly or in enough depth.
Firstly, on the racism charge, if you want to reach White audiences with a message they need to hear, the modus operandi of using White people to do that is actually a good thing. Look at Spike Lee’s “Black kKklansman” as an example. While undoubtedly an important film that should be widely seen and one masterfully executed by Spike (as usual), how many White people were lining up to see it? Same problem Michael Moore has: their reputations precede them. Point being, you can’t get a good message into a person’s head if they don’t want to listen to the messenger.
As for complaining about the depth (or lack thereof) with regard to historical accuracy or details, I only got one comment for all those nit-pickers and nay-sayers out there: show me what YOU have done to bring America to an awareness of Dr. Don Shirley and his music, and the Green Book that (literally) could mean life or death for African-Americans traveling in pre-civil rights America, especially in the South. Yeah, I thought so. Nada. Zip. At least now there’s a movie out there that’s going to reach millions of Americans – many of them African-Americans who have never heard of Don Shirley or the Green Book – and I am hoping that whoever sees this engaging film will be enlightened and moved emotionally by what they see in “Green Book.”
Medicine is more easily imbibed with a little honey, and “Green Book” is the kind of medicine that a LOT of people need to imbibe, especially in today’s Trumpian world where racism is being dog-whistled left and right by the man currently in the White House. Before Trump came on the stage, the Green Book that saved the lives of countless African-Americans was just a historical remnant of a much more intolerant and racist time. What’s truly scary is that if things race-wise keep deteriorating, the Green Book may, by necessity, have to make a comeback. We can’t allow that to happen. It’s bad enough that some people don’t understand why “Black Lives Matter” or why Colin Kaepernick and other Black athletes want to take a knee to protest racial injustices. It’s even worse when some people don’t think there’s a problem with racism in America at all.
That’s why “Green Book” comes to the fore at a time when the need to face America’s past, vis-a-vis race relations, is even more vital to the survival of America as a country and as an ideal. We are not all White. We have never been all White. We are a mixture of people from all over the globe in search of a better life and a chance to live free.
True, many of the people who came here did not do so of their own volition but rather in chains or through the harsh winds of war, famine or economic hardship, but regardless of the misfortune or dire circumstances that brought them to America, some of them and many more of their descendants were first empowered and eventually granted more freedoms and better opportunities by the promise inherent in seven simple words that truly gave birth to America: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We owe it to our children – White, Black, Brown or whatever shade of skin tone they may be – to ensure that the America our past generations hoped for continues to shine, not just as an ideal, but as an attainable reality of freedom, hope and opportunity. America must fight and strive to be the place where the oppressed can escape religious, political, racial, economic and other forms of persecution. Trump and his minions are herding us down the road to a fascist, authoritarian, apartheid police state that will spell the death of America as we know it.
Think I’m being overly reactionary? Remember: Germany was one of Europe’s most highly cultured and civilized nation-states, boasting strong democratic and humanitarian mores and institutions. . . before Hitler came to power. In less than a decade, Hitler and the Nazis destroyed everything good in their country and tried to do the same in the rest of the world. And all along the way, the Nazis had willing enablers and sycophants to oil the wheels of their racist, antisemitic, eugenics-driven machineries of death.
So call me reactionary – it’s what happens when you know even a little bit of American and world history and are not feeling at ease or encouraged by current trends. OK, the rant is over. Here’s the link to an article on “Green Book.” Go see the movie and support the ideal of what America needs to be and, God-willing (and people-willing), can be.