Mon. Aug 10th, 2020

Peter Farrelly’s race relations road movie may be safe and conventional but winning performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali make it a crowdpleaser

“Inspired by a true story” as an opening title card often says more about what a film is not about rather than what it’s about. An even looser term than “based,” we know going in that liberties will be taken, multiple characters merged into one, embellishments

Viggo Mortensen plays Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (whose son is a credited co-producer and co-writer on the film), as broad an Italian-American stereotype as you’re likely to see, in 1962 New York City. He’s a bouncer, a taker-carer of things (“public relations,” he says at one point). For Mortensen, who gained 30 lbs for the role, it’s one of his most He’s shifty and grifty, a bullshitter but not a liar, he’ll tell you. He’s also a low-level racist. When he finds his wife (played by Linda Cardellini) has allowed to black repairmen into their house and drink out of their glasses, he throws them away. It’s an odd setup for a character that, save one anti-Asian slur, barely registers this racism again. After his main gig at the Copacabana club abruptly stops for a two-month remodel job, Tony needs to find work.

He’s recommended for a driving job for a “Dr.” Shirley and shows up at Carnegie Hall looking for a doctor’s office. “He lives above the theater,” a woman tells him. When Tony enters the “office” it’s an extravagant museum of artifacts, collectibles and more. There’s a throne. Enter Doc Shirley (a regal Mahershala Ali). Looking like a Wakandan prince, he takes his throne to interview Tony. A famous concert pianist, Doc is looking for a confidante, someone to help him navigate not simply the roads of his upcoming tour but the potential dangers involved as they travel south of the Mason-Dixon line. This includes finding hotels that are exclusively for “colored” people. Tony is given the Negro Motorist Green Book (which was published from 1936-1966), a guideline for places Doc will be allowed to stay and eat in places that have laws enacted that don’t so much as even allow black folk out after dark.

The duo’s road trip becomes a bit of an ‘Odd Couple’ pairing, with Doc’s fastidiousness and exceptional diction equally matched by Tony’s sloppy eating habits and marble-mouthed monosyllabic nature. It propels the film pretty far and Mortensen performance is one of comic gold (he really should do more comedy) and Ali is so good here, one of his best performances ever, perfectly in tune as a man with no place – not black enough for black folk, not white enough for white folk.

The two are constantly faced with moral quandaries that they fight over. Doc’s shows take him from huge concert halls to private residences of very wealthy Southern folk. But folk that still live by their strict rules of ‘it’s how it’s always been’ segregation. At one point, Doc is in the intermission of one his shows at a former plantation and isn’t allowed to use the house restroom. Instead, in his tuxedo, he’s pointed to the outhouse as his only option. These moments pepper their story, along with a reveal about Doc’s personal life (that is, frankly, handled much better by Tony than anyone should expect), Tony introducing Doc to more ‘black’ food and musical artists (a really questionable and problematic conceit), Doc teaching Tony how to write better letters home to his wife. The success of these moments, of the entire film, is the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali and whether it’s high comedy or serious drama, theirs is as perfect as can be. 

I often talk about a film’s point of view, and who its main audience is, as a part of my film criticism. I think a lot of negative criticism will get heaped on Green Book for being too safe, too PG-13 (it stretches the language limits with two F-bombs and two strategically placed n-words) in the vein of Hidden Figures or The Help. Most of the time the film feels like it’s about racism but for white people. The largely white audience at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw it with exploded with laughter (the movie is an intentional comedy for the most part) and was appropriate quiet during moments of race-related tension. I’ll be curious to see the response from black audiences and critics once its more widely seen, as it will also help inform and broaden my own thoughts. 

Director Peter Farrelly, best knows for R-rated comedies like There’s Something About Mary, definitely finds threads of empathy, that while they may only be “inspired by,” do have an impact in a comedy-drama that rides a fine line between laughing with and laughing at.

Green Book world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in the US by Universal Pictures on November 21st.

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