Director: Peter Farrelly
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
There are many reasons why Green Book shouldn’t work – it’s predictable, simplistic, sentimental. You’ve seen this shtick before – two characters, poles apart, forced together by circumstances, who become friends and help each other to grow and overcome their limitations. As soon as the feisty, streetwise, Italian-American driver cum bodyguard Tony Vallelonga meets the cultured, affluent Jamaican-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley, you know exactly where the film is headed.
The miracle is that you still enjoy the ride – in this case a drive through several Southern states in America. The film is set in 1962. Shirley is a lauded artist but the color of his skin makes it difficult for him to travel in the segregated South. So Tony is offered a two-month gig to shepherd him through and to ensure that he reaches each gig in time. Tony, played by a beefy Viggo Mortensen, protects Shirley in various tricky situations like a brawl at an all-white bar and fending off racist police officers. He also introduces Shirley to the pleasures of fried chicken and Aretha Franklin. Meanwhile, the fastidious Shirley helps Nick to get past his own racism and discover the pleasures of being more refined.
Mortensen’s charm is countered by Mahershala Ali’s precision and grace as Shirley. Their characters might be etched in broad strokes – Tony is a guy from the Bronx who can eat 26 hot dogs in a contest while Shirley lives above Carnegie hall in an apartment filled with art. But their performances add flesh and finesse. The actors create a genuine bond that lifts the film above its own glib, formulaic plot and gives it heart.
Green Book is inspired by a true story. The title refers to a travel book for African-Americans – it advised them on places where they could stay and eat in the Southern States. The Green Book is an awful artefact of a not-so-distant past but the film barely touches upon it. Tony occasionally refers to it. And then the conversation turns to safer and more cheerful topics. Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly, who you might recognize as co-director on films like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Clearly, Farrelly doesn’t want proceedings to get too ugly or uncomfortable.
The film plays like a feel-good, lightweight treatise on racism and healing. Which also makes it a crowd-pleaser – it won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Despite the shallowness, I found myself smiling and cheering for this unlikely friendship. I suspect you’ll like it too. I’m going with three stars.