Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Premise: Based on true events. In the 1960s, a blue collar Italian American (Viggo Mortenson) is hired to drive an African American pianist (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour through the American south.
What Works: At its heart, Green Book is a road trip buddy comedy like Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In fact, Green Book was directed by Peter Farrelly who also co-wrote and directed Dumb and Dumber and despite Green Book’s classy aspirations the film never strays too far from its roots. Green Book is a very likable film. Much of its strength is in the lead performances by Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali. Mortinson is cast as Tony, an Italian American from the Bronx who works as a bouncer at the Copacabana. When he is temporarily put out of work, Tony takes a job as a driver and escort for Dr. Shirley, an African American pianist played by Ali. Each character is quite vivid. Tony is the image of an east coast Italian but Mortenson’s performance goes beyond the stereotype. Tony is tough and occasionally violent but he’s also a family man who has a nuanced understanding of the world. Dr. Shirley is also complex. The character lives a comfortable life in New York City but he puts himself through a journey into the American south at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. However, he plays music for well-to-do audiences who uphold white supremacy. The characters struggle with internal conflicts as they wrestle with identity and authenticity and how social expectations define who they are. Actors Mortenson and Ali are quite good together. There is a lot of humor in Green Book but there are also moments of drama and sensitivity that give the movie some depth.
What Doesn’t: There aren’t many surprises to Green Book. This is an odd couple story and most viewers ought to see where this is going. Tony and Dr. Shirley come from very different worlds but they learn to like and respect one another in the course of their shared adventures. The trouble is that they get on pretty well right from the get-go. Tony is introduced as having racist attitudes but that evaporates as soon they get on the road and Dr. Shirley is stiff and humorless but he quickly adapts to Tony’s sense of humor. These men come from very different worlds but there is little struggle in their attempt to empathize and coexist. It is as though the filmmakers are avoiding the hard parts of this story so they can stay within the likable bubble of a buddy comedy. That becomes a problem for this film in its regard for racism. Green Book portrays racism as an affliction particular to southern good-old-boys. Tony and his family and friends have racist attitudes but this is framed as a harmless sort of racism while the southerners are malicious bigots. It’s a disingenuous difference and Green Book’s portrait of racism is superficial and condescending.
Bottom Line: Green Book is a feel-good movie that resembles The Blind Side and The Help in both its appeals and in its shortcomings. This isn’t a particularly challenging film but Green Book has a couple of vivid and likable characters at the center of it.
Episode: #729 (December 16, 2018)