Mahershala Ali’s performance shines through despite ill-judged moments from director Peter Farrelly
Sun 3 Feb 2019
The first solo film from Peter Farrelly is a step up in ambition from the rambunctiously crude comedies – including Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary – he directed with his brother Bobby. A flip of the Driving Miss Daisy dynamic, the film is based on the real-life friendship between Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a blue-collar Italian American, and Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), the cultured African American concert pianist whom Tony is hired to drive on a tour of the still segregated deep south.
The period, 1962, is romanticised with a handsome palette that could have been lifted from an Edward Hopper painting. Pistachio greens, apricot and caramel, teal blue and lipstick crimsons all saturate the frame. It looks almost inviting – each scene wrapped in a snug embrace of nostalgia. But Farrelly’s sensitive approach to colour is confined to the look of the film. Green Book’s approach to race is at best naive and at worst jaw-droppingly ill-judged. There are jarring, tone-deaf scenes in which Tony, a man who previously threw away two glasses that had been used by African Americans, is suddenly an expert in black culture who introduces his employer to the joys of jazz and fried chicken.
What redeems the film, to a certain extent, is a superb performance from Ali. There is a patrician quality to his bearing as he sits, cashmere-wrapped and aloof, in the back of the car, wearied by the empty calories of Tony’s chatter. It’s a stark contrast to his public face, an automatic, unfelt smile tacked on to disarm the southern racists who view him as a novelty act rather than a world-class musician. Shirley’s dignified melancholy tips, occasionally, into provocative and self-destructive behaviour – Ali beautifully captures the complexity of the man who juggles whiskey-soured, morning-after regret with a stubborn pride in his true self.
Watch a trailer for Green Book.