UNIVERSAL PICTURES (2019)
Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
I’m glad the movie revealed the meaning of the title as I was stumped trying to work it out.
One-half of the brains behind Dumb and Dumber (superb), There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin, and Shallow Hal – to name oh but a few – Peter Farrelly went solo to deliver comedy-drama Green Book. Inspired by the story of a wealthy black musician hiring a tough-talking, brash white guy from the Bronx to chauffeur him during his tour of the US Deep South in 1962, and their subsequent bond, the movie sounded like a perfect antidote to these admittedly backward times we are facing currently. The power pairing of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali sealed the deal.
Ali takes on the role of Dr. Don Shirley, a renowned pianist shackled in his freedom by the colour of his skin and a lack of belonging/identity. A prodigious pianist playing to rich white folk who would rather he didn't play classical music – so as not to besmirch the quality, a man adored for his music but barred from using the same restaurants or restrooms as the Southern white crowds. His polar opposite, Tony Lip (Mortensen) is far more comfortable when prowling the Mafia-owned nightclubs of New York in his role as bouncer/enforcer, his casually racist attitude prevalent against his wife Dolores’ (Cardellini) better wishes. His reputation is what brings him to Shirley’s attention and the road trip of the Deep South begins. It sounds very fanciful and contrived, and to be honest it pretty much plays out that way, however, the wonderful performances and the movie’s spirit carry this triumphantly to the finish line. What’s wrong with a feel-good movie when, firstly, it’s based on the true story of the two men’s friendship (which lasted until both passed away in 2013) and, secondly, it’s engaging, entertaining and full of moments that will charm you and infuriate you in equal measures. Unless you’re racist, then, well, you’re an idiot. Ali’s poised and silently seething performance is layered and full of emotion and Mortensen – who piled on the pounds for the role – is full of bravado and swagger as the less-cultured New Yawker. Together, they make it work and more.
The narrative itself is fairly light and simplistic in terms of its execution, but its messages are hard and heavy. Though Farrelly uses humour cleverly to soften the blow slightly, the attitudes towards racism, homophobia, and bigotry are laid out for all to see. Throughout, both Shirley and Tony are having to check themselves and their eyes are opened by their shared experiences as the two-month road trip rolls on. Whether it’s sharing a bucket of fried chicken or composing love letters home, the sense of connection I felt with the characters continued to grow. The quieter scenes hold a powerful magnetism (a silent moment of a bruised Shirley covering his wounds with concealer is a fine example of this) and never feel undercut by the humour which comes more from the conversations and interactions between the two leads – a scene involving a discarded soda cup had me in stitches.
The simplicity of the story may not resonate with all and the gushy ending certainly won’t win everyone over. For me? I loved it. In the context of Green Book, it worked, really capping off the journey and delivering the euphoria that’s lacking in the real world. For those wondering (like me), the titular book was a handbook published for black travellers that named services and establishments that were safe for them during that particular time – the movie itself could have added a line explaining it, though a shot of the front cover provided the info.
When all is said and done, what’s important in this world is respect, love, compassion, and empathy and Green Book does a wonderful job of delivering this message, as well as the need to embrace differences and to overcome preconceptions and bigotry. The movie really only falls into syrupy territory in the final scene but I lapped it up with a big grin. Ali and Mortensen are superb together and everything works here. With powerful lead performances, prevalent messages and a real sense of fun, hopefully, the rest of 2019 can be as good as Green Book.
January 1st 2019