Green Book is a warm-hearted, old-fashioned cinematic appeal to our better sensibilities, something that is roundly lacking in the Trump Era of vitriol and division. It is a simple, but never simplistic, based-on-a-true-story depiction of the unlikely friendship between two men: Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a Bronx-born-and-raised Italian heavy, and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an effete black classical/jazz pianist. Set during the early 1960s, the story uses the tried-and-true road trip formula to dramatize Tony and Dr. Shirley's evolving relationship. Tony is hired to drive Don on an 8-week tour, much of which takes them through the still segregated Deep South (the film's title derives from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide that helped black travelers find motels and restaurants that would accept them in the Jim Crow era).
The film's ideological and emotional cornerstone lies in its depiction of how an educated, erudite, and highly refined black musician is nevertheless seen and treated as less than human by a significant part of the American population, including those who would sponsor his musical concerts. In one particularly wince-inducing scene, a wealthy benefactor who has Dr. Shirley to his home for a private concert refuses to allow him to use the bathroom inside the house, instead directing him to a dilapidated outhouse in the yard. In another scene late in the film, Dr. Shirley is denied the right to eat in the very restaurant where he will later be performing, a clear indictment of the fundamental absurdity of racism, which is constantly explained away by those who should know better that it is simply "the way things are done."
In the early portions of the film, Tony counts himself among those who should know better, as he delibertately throws away a set of glasses in his kitchen from which two black workers drank. The details of Tony's own internalized racism is one of the film's chief weak points, as it is given little dramatic attention or justification, especially since his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), is a progressive who fishes the glasses out of the trash. Part of Green Book's dramatic arc is Tony's overcoming his prejudices and seeing Dr. Shirley as a friend, but it plays more like a clash of cultures, rather than an issue of race, as Tony's brusque, unrefined persona (he is working as a bouncer at the Copa Cabana when we first meet him) runs headlong into Dr. Shirley's many interpersonal, intellectual, and social refinements. Tony assumes he knows things about Dr. Shirley simply because he's black, but is shocked to learn that he doesn't listen to Little Richard or enjoy fried chicken. There are lessons to be learned, and while they are all familiar, they are still meaningful.
Director Peter Farrelly, who is making his dramatic debut after having spent the past several decades partnered with his brother Bobby on a long succession of vulgar comedies including Dumb and Dumber (1994), There's Something About Mary (1998), and The Three Stooges (2012), keeps things direct and uncomplicated, leaving most of the heavy lifting to Viggo Mortensen, who put on some 50 pounds to play Tony, and Mahershala Ali, recent Oscar-winner for his supporting role in Moonlight (2016). Both are clearly playing "types," but they consistently find the humanity in the characters, building a rapport that carries the film along on a solid, largely enjoyable current. The screenplay by Nick Vallelonga (son of the real-life Tony), Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly is a largely efficient piece of work, even when it dabbles in potentially treacly material like Dr. Shirley helping Tony write better love letters back home to Dolores. It's ultimately a warm, humane depiction of friendship, one whose good graces make it easy to overlook its minor shortcomings.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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