A wonderful, breezy road movie with more than a modicum of purpose.
Peter Farrelly; the man (partly) behind some of the finest oddball entries in the comedy genre, most of all, Dumb and Dumber (ignore the sequels like the plague). But times are changing, directors are adapting, and his foray into the cinematic sphere of drama with Green Book isn’t without its debutant-related pitfalls, but nonetheless has a brazen, crowd-pleasing levity and a truly fetching shine.
The film tells the true story of Tony ‘Lip’ (Viggo Mortensen), a working-class Italian-American bouncer who is hired by world-class and famed musician ‘Doc’ Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to drive and protect him during his tour of the deep south in the 1960s.
The most obvious comparison here is 1989’s Oscar-winner Driving Miss Daisy, but this time there’s a role reversal of sorts. That film has not aged particularly well in the public eye, scorned more for its rather rose-tinted view of troublesome (understatement of the year, I know) times. Green Book may too face a controversial reception; hard to argue against it, on the surface it’s a dramedy about racism in America written and directed by white men and told from the point of view, of a white man (although there’s a rather fair reason for that – Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony, based his contributions to the screenplay on interviews with his father). You can turn off the alarm bells though; Farrelly’s picture is more innocuous than erroneous, more well-intentioned than frustratingly righteous.
The most striking aspect of the filmmaking is Sean Porter’s dazzling cinematography, opening the movie with a fresh coat of polish that never wears and a gorgeous mastery of a warm palette. We start in a jaunty club, alive with infectious band-playing and jiving. Inevitably, with the booze flowing and emotions flying, two men spark up a fight over, as one pig vilely says, “a piece of ass”. Tony takes little shit though, and soon one of the fiesty wannabe alpha’s is on the receiving end of a brutal pounding.
That’s just one, albeit significant, trait of his character – he’s a principled man, not keen on jobs he sees as beneath him, but is willing to bet a considerably massive amount of money on a hot-dog eating contest. Then there’s the prejudice – in one scene he comes home to see two black men repairing his floor, taking a break to enjoy some lemonade. As soon as his gracious wife (the fabulous Linda Cardellini) thanks them and escorts them out, he bins the glasses they used. This restrained, affecting moment is a powerful indictment of the racist chip on Tony’s shoulder, but Farrelly rarely taps back into that same condemnation.
Soon he meets Doc in his lavish, top-floor home above the theatre, filled with all sorts of “fancy things”. “Them horns real?” Tony asks, Doc replies, “Elephant tusks, yes.” This is first of many stunningly and hilariously elegant putdowns in Ali’s searing script. Their clash of decorums provide some heart-warming jollity, such as a scene in the car when Tony opens Doc’s eyes to the culinary wonder of fried chicken. But gags and relatively cheap humour fill the air when the scintillating dynamic between the leads could be doing the work. Not that the funnies are poorly executed (my screening was often in uproarious laughter), but it has a tendency to break the emotional current.
The origin of the film’s title stems from an actual physical ‘Green Book’ – essentially a guide of where it is safe for black people to stay in more expectedly racist areas. As much as this is a jocular road flick, inevitably, the characters run into some pretty nasty sorts, both in the high-toned, ritzy homes to which Doc is affording his virtuoso piano skills (if that really is Ali playing, my god), and in the scummy, hillbilly bars where discrimination is the daily special. Its here that the script paints caricatures rather than more believable portraits, and often speedily breezes past some dark material. That said, Ali and Mortensen are on utterly fantastic form here in two charisma-packed performances, captivatingly leading the feature when other elements don’t always piece together (Kris Bowers’ score is majorly underwhelming). Awards season is approaching, don’t be surprised if they pop up. This is definitely the turning of a page for Farrelly’s direction, but he has a few more to go if he really wants to reach the next chapter.
More slight than sobering, this is a charming, deftly performed piece of work.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm