*** out of ****
(for thematic content, language including racial epithets, brief strong language, smoking, some violence, and suggestive material)
Released: November 21, 2018
Runtime: 130 minutes
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov
It’s nice to see a studio make the kind of movie that studios don’t like to make anymore.
Allegedly, Hollywood has completely ditched mid-level budget, adult-driven dramas in the age of tentpoles, franchises, and cinematic universes. And granted, a cursory glance at your Fandango app would likely reinforce that cynical notion.
But then here comes a movie like Green Book to completely upend it. Not only is it “that kind” of so-called antiquated movie, but it’s clear that the studio actually liked making it. And audiences will love watching it.
Playing like the type of civil rights era issues-based drama that lapped up Awards buzz in the 1980s and 90s, Green Book actually gives the term “Oscar bait” a good name. Normally a pejorative, this kind of Oscar bait is of the caliber that you enjoy being a sucker for. You bite the hook yet you’re the one rewarded; it’s the movie that’s the catch.
Green Book is based on the true story of the unexpected friendship between Dr. Don Shirley, a celebrated African-American pianist, and Anthony Vallelonga (a.k.a. Tony Lip), a Bronx wiseguy. In 1962, the New York-based Shirley – who’d played from Carnegie Hall to the White House – hired Vallelonga to be his driver on a two-month year-end concert tour for Shirley’s “The Don Shirley Trio”, playing at ritzy establishments and elite, private mansion dinner concerts.
The first half of the leg took them across the upper Midwest of the United States, but it was when they got to the Deep South that Tony Lip’s moxie and muscle was needed most, helping Shirley navigate the often-treacherous traps set for Negroes during the Jim Crow era. The term “Green Book” was the title of the travel guide that helped delineate which hotels and other establishments allowed African-Americans in as patrons.
This is the first drama from director Peter Farrelly (of Farrelly Brothers fame, with hits like Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary), yet a lot of humor still weaves its way into this retelling, of a type and tone that’s based in wit and character rather than stupidity and sight gags. Given his track record, this is a surprisingly confident and polished shift for Farrelly. In a sense, it’s the best Rob Reiner film in at least 25 years.
Farrelly anchors the piece in an “odd couple” construct, not only in race but social class, mining comedy and conflict in equal measure. There’s a reversal to the norm, though – sort of a Driving Miss Daisy seat swap – which helps this feel fresh. Dr. Shirley, the black man, is the erudite sophisticate while Tony, the white guy, is of a crass, lower class stock.
Getting to know one another through car ride conversations, Shirley refines Tony’s rough edges while Tony gets Shirley to loosen up, each learning to show respect for the other and, over time, slowly gaining it. Along the way, Tony’s racism and Shirley’s arrogance soften, each man transformed for the better as a bond grows.
Shirley also provides a poetic, romantic influence to the letters that Tony writes to his wife back home, but thankfully he’s never reduced to a “Magical Negro” archetype, instead being fleshed out with his own issues, shortcomings, and fears that he needs to overcome. Likewise, Tony isn’t just a grunt, retrograde dufus. There’s a wisdom to his crude candor.
Their dynamic is played with a clashing, charming camaraderie by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Viggo Mortensen (the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Ali’s Shirley carries dignity with style but also uses it as a shield, creating a conflicted character that subtly flips between gentility and contempt. Mortensen lays the Italian caricature on a bit thick, especially when compared to the authentic Italian actors around him, but he’s having fun with it and so do we.
Farrelly’s period piece luxuriates in nostalgia, rich in Mad Men-level mid-century detail and a soundtrack stacked deep with Motown and crooner ballads. The film’s hermetically-sealed time warp sheen is one of the spoonfuls of sugar that helps this medicine go down, as is the Christmas backdrop of the latter half, making for a perfect holiday release targeted at adults.
Green Book is decidedly middle brow, aspiring to import but achieving it largely by the numbers. Injustice is explored but in accessible, satisfying ways. And yet sincerity makes up for a lot, as does playing to our hopes and dreams rather than just our rage and grief, imbuing the formula with genuine heart.
It also delivers a timely message, an ideal, about learning and growing from our differences, and becoming better – not divided – because of them. Sure, that may be a bit pat, but it’s no less true, necessary, or welcome.
With fewer good films like this than ever before (only The Help and Hidden Figures compare in recent years), “middle brow” has become something of a lost art. The two need not be mutually exclusive, and they mingle beautifully in Green Book.