Green Book (2018)

21 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Even when we know almost exactly what we’re going to get in a particular movie, we still embrace it because it gives us what we want AND need. And that’s the case with “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s road-trip comedy-drama about race relations in the 1960s. We all know race relations were troublesome in that era (and some will argue they’re not at their strongest nowadays, either—but let’s not go there), and so, we know more or less what we’re going to get from this movie about a white tough-guy chauffeur/bodyguard (from the Bronx) who is hired by a black sophisticated pianist (who lives right above Carnegie Hall, literally) to travel through the Midwest and the Deep South for a two-month tour. We know these two are going to bicker and argue for a good portion of the trip before letting down their defenses and getting to know one another better. And we know they’re going to encounter a good deal of racism (some of which is “polite” racism from good-natured Southern folks, but it’s still racism). We know there’s going to be a big blow-up moment between the two in which one reveals something about themselves that changes everything. And we know they’re going to become friends.

Well, we do get all of that in “Green Book.” But…so what? Just because we have a pretty good idea of how things are going to turn out for the most part, that doesn’t make the movie any less good, powerful, or endearing. And that’s all that “Green Book” becomes: a lovely, sentimental road movie with two interesting characters and something to say about where we were then and where we are now.

Based on a true friendship between Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Don Shirley, “Green Book” takes place in the last couple months of 1962, as bouncer/enforcer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who earns the nickname by being able to talk himself out of almost any tight spot, is hired to drive the renowned pianist Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) of the Don Shirley Trio through the Midwest before going into the Deep South. Assisting Tony is “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that lists the state-by-state locations that will serve black travelers.

We get an “Odd Couple” sort of relationship between Lip and Doc, as Lip is more abrasive, outgoing, and a real wiseass, whereas Doc is more reserved, the straight man to Lip’s antics. And what also makes things complicated is Lip’s deep-rooted racism, as established in an early moment when he throws away two glasses used by two black repairmen after his wife serves them drinks. But he needs the work, and the job to drive this black man around pays well, so he knows he has to do what he has to do. It’s his story being told in “Green Book” (which is also co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real-life Tony Lip), and so it’s important that the audience understand how his development from ignorance into tolerance comes to be, especially since we all know it’s inevitable. (And I’m not just saying that because the real-life story Lip and Doc remained friends to their dying days, shortly within each other, which is pretty interesting and cool—I’m mostly saying it because we know the change is predictable in this type of story.) Thankfully, the development is not only convincing; it’s welcoming in ways that I didn’t expect. There’s not a moment in this progression that feels rushed; it feels natural and real, and we welcome the changes in Lip’s worldview.

“Green Book” was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, who is still best-known as one half of the Farrelly brothers who were responsible for such outrageous raunchy comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” I’m glad he can remind us any good filmmaker can make any type of movie, no matter what their reputation. But also, while he knows to capture the weight of the heavier situations that are definite for his protagonists to come across (such as the Southern “gentleman” who is glad to let the Don Shirley Trio play in his mansion…as long as Doc doesn’t use his bathroom), he also knows to lighten the mood with comedic moments, such as when Lip stops for Kentucky Fried Chicken (in Kentucky!) and practically begs Doc to try some after he admits he’s never tried it before, and especially when Doc helps Lip in writing letters to his loving wife (Linda Cardellini, underused but still effective)…letters that are written better than what Lip could have come up with, to say the least. And yet the comedy doesn’t feel forced; most of it comes from the characters being themselves and interacting with each other, and thus when their working relationship elevates into trusting friendship, we understand how it happened.

All of that is well and good, but there is one very important element that makes “Green Book” worth recommending and seeing again: the acting. The acting from both Viggo Mortensen as Lip and Mahershala Ali as Doc is unbelievably excellent. If we didn’t buy their performances for even a slight moment, the whole film would’ve fallen apart real fast. (And I don’t think I’m exaggerating in that remark.) I look at Ali and I don’t see the stonefaced drug dealer he portrayed in his Oscar-winning performance in “Moonlight”; I see someone 100% different, the reserved, suave, cultured Dr. Don Shirley, who keeps his nose in the air and his demons wrapped tight inside himself. He’s great, but it’s not really his story being told here. Instead, it’s the story of Tony Lip, played by Mortensen, who has delivered many a strong performance in his busy career…and I think this one might be his best. He has a credible New York accent and he’s gained a lot of weight for the role, but the attitude he brings to the character is what makes him very interesting. His ability to talk his way out of anything plus his violent temper proves to be both a blessing and a curse, and it’s when Tony Lip realizes both aspects that his character starts to go through a fascinating change. I’m sincerely hoping for an Oscar nomination for Mortensen in this role, because he deserves it.

“Green Book” as a film isn’t very subtle, as most of the characters’ journey is painted in broad strokes. But the performances are excellent and what make the film the treasure that it is. They help make the inspirational true-story aspects all the more effective, and as a result, “Green Book” is a predictable winner but a winner nonetheless.

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