Synopsis: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco
Director: Peter Farrelly
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Sometimes when reviewing a movie it’s hard to wear two hats. I know that one part of me needs to retain a critical eye and hold a film accountable for its strengths and weaknesses but then there’s also a personal side that speaks to me as that movie-goer who has just come to be entertained. Green Book represents an odd mix of conflicts in both sectors; it’s not a movie without it’s missteps or passages that work like gangbusters but there’s a undercurrent in the way it guilelessly aims to entertain that, considering its subject matter, didn’t ultimately sit well with me. It’s a movie I enjoyed but also has me questioning if I shouldn’t be holding it more accountable to be more than it was.
In 1962 New York City, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method) is about to start a layoff from his job at the Copacabana while the famed nightclub undergoes renovation. Looking for a job to support his wife (Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home) and children as the holidays approach, he’s called in by Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) a famed black jazz pianist who needs a driver for his tour of the Deep South. While Don could easily stay in the North and make a good living playing concerts far from the danger of the Jim Crow South, he chooses to take his trio (there’s two other white men traveling separately) to a place where segregation and racism runs rampant.
Essentially a road-trip movie, screenwriters Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), Brian Hayes Currie , Peter Farrelly (who also directed), fill the film with vignettes that illustrate over and over the differences between how the North and South treated black people. As expected in this type of formula, tough, street-wise Italian-American Tony and the refined, buttoned-up Don mix like oil and water at first with both men taking time and many miles to adjust to the others way of thinking. Both contain certain prejudices about the other (not always presented in the way you’d expect) and over the next eight weeks through the Christmas holiday the men will have their eyes opened to seeing more of the world they are living in.
Let’s start with the bad news first, and that is that this 2018 film seems awfully like the kind of movie you’d have seen the ‘90s where racism, segregation, and overall prejudice is seemingly solved in two hours. Many of the characters onscreen are stock character stereotypes of the people you’d expect to see in a film about the south in the ‘60s. You have your obvious redneck racists the deeper south Tony and Don travel, you have your affluent members of society that harbor whispered racism behind closed doors, and you have the people like Tony and some members of his extended family who have just never taken the time to get to know any person of color but when they do find out that they aren’t so bad. Then there’s Tony himself who is the epitome of every Italian goombah you’ve seen, never without a cigarette in his mouth or chowing down on some messy red sauce-d dish. Everyone is drawn with such exaggerated, bold lines that it’s a credit to the actors who have taken the time to find different ways to shade their roles with characteristics that are more human and less cartoon…though wait until you see Tony fold an entire pizza in half and try to eat it.
The good news here is most of our time is spent with Mortensen and Ali and this absolutely makes the film worth your time. Though Mortensen is constantly battling with the major constraints of his tough-guy (the accent and the potbelly physicality), he’s never mean-spirited and seems open-minded enough to be able to look within himself when challenged. Whatever racism he may harbor feels like it was something he was brought up to never question because he hasn’t had exposure to another race and the more time he spends with Don gives him a different perspective. While I still raise my eyebrows a bit at the speed of Tony’s reconsideration, recognizing that we’re looking at a Hollywood take on a true life story I appreciated that Mortensen at least shows us how he got there.
The most complex role is Ali’s as a pianist bravely venturing into the territory of his enemy as a way to experience something his life in NYC hasn’t afforded him. Surrounding himself with mostly white culture up until that point, the trip down south is an eye opening experience for Don as well, mostly reconfirming his beliefs of the hatred and injustices that were present (and in some cases still are) in that part of America. There is more to Don than meets the eye, giving Ali yet another layer of prejudice to play with and he does masterful work here. There’s talk that Ali will net his second Oscar for the film and with a performance as strong as his, I can see why. (Though, it must be said he’s absolutely a lead of the film with Mortensen and for him to campaign in Best Supporting Actor is total category fraud).
After spending his career in comedy and turning in work like Dumb and Dumber To and The Three Stooges, director Farrelly takes his first stab at drama and has made a more than serviceable movie. While the script has some questionable areas to it, it’s a finely made film with all the period elements (costumes, sets, cars, props) all fitting well into the mix. Though the film was an entertaining watch and I liked the performances of our two lead actors, I do wish it had something more to say about the overall tone of that era. When the credits rolled it felt like the filmmakers were saying “and they lived happily ever after” and that just rang false to me.