Green Book (2018)
Director: Peter Farrelly | Runtime: 2h 10mins | Biography, Drama, Comedy
Set in the 1960’s, classical and popular pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) embarks on a tour of the deep south accompanied by his escort Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a Italian-American bouncer on temporary leave from the Copacabana.
Those with a keen eye will notice director Peter Farrelly shifting from his usual brand of comedic films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Me, Myself and Irene (2000) and the later The Heartbreak Kid (2007), which have reached varying levels of success, critically and commercially. This is worth mentioning first as it may not seem like the mind behind these can create a smooth and affecting piece layered with nuance, but that’s exactly what we get. As his first foray into serious drama, Farrelly balances the right amount of personal emotion and tension that comes from a black musician touring in southern states with important social messages about racism and prejudices alongside humour and heartfelt entertainment.
One of the most notable aspects is how both characters need to learn from each other in order to change. It isn’t a straight forward ‘white-racist needs to let go of his bigotry’ arc, although Tony certainly has to learn to be more accepting. Shirely is far from perfect himself, having to understand how a man like himself fits in the world, using the sure to be quoted line: “So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?”. By the end, Ali’s character embraces different aspects of his life and is more accepting of the crude, working class nature that surrounds Tony.
Even with Farrelly’s capable direction the film would fall flat without strong leads, as a large majority revolves around the two on their journey. Luckily for him, there are few working that are as on top of their game as Mahershala Ali right now. Bringing another wonderful performance, he ventures into new terrority from previous roles in Moonlight (2016) and Place Beyond The Pines (2012), and unlike those mentioned Ali really steps to the forefront and reflects the elegant nature of Don Shirley with ease. If it weren’t for the sheer talent of his well-matched co-lead, Ali would have outshone them. Mortensen manages to match the capability well however, and brings Vallelonga’s on screen personality to life. His less cultured and more brash outlook clashes with Shirley’s, creating enough tension and humour to keep the audience engaged.
Green Book is not without its flaws, though they are more minor than anything else. Some of the messages about racism do come across quite in your face – the audience doesn’t need to be told that a racist police officer is the antagonist, for example, and that during the opening act we are fed a lot of exposition that feels either like it could have been shown with more sublety, or even just left to be implied. These are hypercriticisms however, and fade into the background once the credits roll.
Out the other end, you feel a surprising amount of joy. It is a very feel-good experience, and when you consider the topic at hand this is no easy feat. A simple but life affirming journey coming with a strong recommendation.