As a director builds their body of work, it generally becomes easier to recognise their style and understand their preferences. That’s why, for the average film fan, there are certain words that would be almost laughable to find in the same sentence. Something along the lines of “Quentin Tarantino” and “family friendly fun”; or maybe “Terrance Malik” and “straight forward plot.”
So it is somewhat stupefying to hear that Peter Farrelly, one half of the comedy titans known as the Farrelly Brothers, had decided to strike out alone and create a roadtrip drama about an interracial work relationship set in the 1950s American South. Hardly a laugh-a-minute proposition.
The roadtrip in question kicks off a couple of days before the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. With the nightclub Copacabana closing down for refurbishment, New York bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself out of a job and unable to support his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their two kids.
Out of the blue, Tony gets a call from the offices of famed black pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). After an interview they offer him a job as a chauffeur during Dr. Shirley’s eight week tour of the American South. Though reluctant at first, Tony accepts the job and the two men set out on a journey that will change both of their lives.
The comparison to Driving Miss Daisy is a given, especially considering that Green Book is also about the clash of white and black ideals whilst one character is chauffeuring the other. However, the later film takes a much more detailed look into the racial aspects that arise from such a journey. An approach that’s much appreciated, especially considering this film is based on a true story.
That basis in reality is also what gives the film its title. In order to assist him on their journey, Tony is given the The Negro Motorist Green Book (typically known as the Green Book.) Functioning somewhat similarly to the UK’s The Good Hotel Guide, the Green Book contains a list of locations throughout the United States where there are services that are friendly to people of colour. It’s somewhat horrifying that such a product needed to exist. But it’s a strong reminder as to just how deeply racism was embedded into the American social landscape.
The relationship between the two differing races is portrayed brilliantly by the two leads. Mortensen in particular is a delight, playing a more down-to-earth streetwise Italian, and one far more likeable than his equally tough role in Eastern Promises. In fact this film acts as a sort of revelation for Mortensen, showing that he can be quite the accomplished comedian. With numerous moments where he gets to play off the more straight man approach of Ali, there ends up being multiple moments of hilarious personality clashes, similar to what might be seen in Peep Show (or for those with American tastes, The Odd Couple).
Speaking of comedy, it turns out having Peter Farrelly direct this film was a stunningly good move. Though he may be best known for his lewd romantic comedies, such as Shallow Hal or There’s Something About Mary, Farrelly is spectacularly successful in balancing comedy with the darker aspects of a black man travelling through the American South.
Despite Ali having a more low-key role compared to Mortensen, it’s still a performance that will resonate with many. His character of Shirley finds himself ostracised by both sides of the divide. White society, though appreciative of his talents, still reject him because of his skin colour; while black people shun him because of his diction and wealth. That Shirley is unable to find true acceptance, and yet still retains his dignity and respect is not only a mark of Ali’s ability, but also the fine work set upon the page by the writers, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly.
But as good as the movie is, there aren’t any true surprises in Green Book, with Farrelly seemingly preferring to play it quite safe. The relationship between the two leads never really reaches breaking point, with Tony in particular being surprisingly compassionate and forgiving over many of Shirley’s traits and behaviours. In that sense there may be a little bit too much 21st Century understanding in his character; but seeing that one of the co-writers is Nick Vallelonga, the real-life son of Tony, it’s not too surprising that there might be a little anachronism going on.
If you’ve seen at least one other movie of two opposite personalities travelling together, then you already know the general structure and ending that Green Book will deliver. But the laughs and the “feel-goodness” that emerges from the picture makes this a roadtrip well worth taking.
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