Green Book review: an odd couple on the road movie

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It’s 1962 in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and here we’ve got a road trip movie with a white man chauffeuring a black man around the country. Of course we know that racism is going to play a major role in this modest film that’s received numerous accolades and is up for Academy Awards, thanks largely to the brilliant performances by its two star actors.

‘The Green Book’ in question was actually the ‘Negro Motorist’s Green Book’, or as one of the characters describes it, “travelling while black”. The seemingly uninspiring movie title is everything in this case because in some parts of the country, African Americans had to stay in separate hotels from their white counterparts, hence they had their own accommodation list for places that would take them.

One of the first surprises of the film is that it’s directed by Peter Farrelly – he of the Farrelly Brothers who brought us vulgar comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. This is a whole different ball game and Farrelly should be commended for his restraint and good taste. You’d never suspect he’s at the helm.

Maybe you’ve heard of the prodigious pianist, Dr. Don Shirley? If you haven’t, the chances are you’ll be checking out his back catalogue. His idiosyncratic merging of his classical piano training with progressive jazz makes for great listening. Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali (for Moonlight), is extremely impressive as Dr. Shirley (Doctor of Psychology, Music and the Arts), an aloof man who’s difficult to get close to because he doesn’t seem to want to be close to anyone. The film is “inspired” by a true story rather than being “based” on a true story, which is possibly a nod to the fact that this is a fairly loose interpretation of events.

The other half of the star duo is Viggo Mortensen, almost unrecognisable as the overweight Italian bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, or Tony Lip as he’s known in his Bronx neighbourhood (because he’s the “best bullshitter” there). Tony’s real son, Nick Vallelonga is one of the screenwriters (along with Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly), so it’s understandable that the story leans towards Tony’s version of what happened – so much so that Shirley’s family have criticised Green Book for misrepresenting him and Ali has issued an apology for any offence caused.

Tony takes a job driving Dr. Shirley on a concert tour in regions of America where the performer knows he’ll face  unpleasantness and danger, so he needs not only a driver but a protector.

The plot has Tony taking a job driving Dr. Shirley on a concert tour all the way to Alabama and back to New York. This takes in regions of America where the talented performer knows he’ll be facing some unpleasantness and danger so he needs not only a driver but a protector. We know from an early scene that Tony has racist attitudes but Shirley’s money is good and so off he heads for a couple of months, leaving wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and two young sons behind.

There’s no doubting there are issues with the script that many will find irksome. Of course, someone’s in-built racism doesn’t magically disappear after meeting one black person and realising they’re actually okay, and Green Book does fall into some traps that seem to make complex matters quite simplistic. But Mortensen and Ali are so good together and just take you along for the ride, so to speak. It’s actually difficult to separate them regarding their performances, which is possibly why Mortensen is Oscar-nominated in the Actor category while Ali is in the Supporting Actor category.

We know what makes Tony tick but it’s harder to get a real handle on Don Shirley. As portrayed, he’s a very cultured man who lives alone in a swish apartment full of African art and furnishings above Carnegie Hall. He doesn’t know the music of any popular black musicians such as Little Richard or Chubby Checker and has never eaten fried chicken – two things which Tony takes delight in introducing him to. Shirley also doesn’t have any close family (one of the elements his surviving family disputes) and is not black enough to hang out with black people or white enough to be accepted into white circles – or so he says. We see several harrowing instances of the latter when although Shirley is the guest of honour at some swanky gatherings, he can’t enter via the front door or use the indoor toilet. The list of indignities is long and unforgivable.

We know that this odd couple is going to start to warm to each other even though they’re worlds apart. The uncouth bouncer-turned-chauffeur sees just how unjust life is for African Americans while his employer learns the joy in letting his controlled façade down occasionally and having a bit of fun. He also enjoys helping the amusingly bad letter writer Tony write Dolores some poetic and romantic letters while he’s away on the road. There are several fun moments as the pair build bridges between them in unconventional ways.

This comedy-drama is definitely one of the films to see at Oscar time as it’s likely to win a few. Mortensen is a revelation playing against type and Ali, after winning a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, could add another Oscar to go straight to the pool room.

3 responses to “Green Book review: an odd couple on the road movie

  1. It’s not a four star movie, more like three or three and a half. The script is pretty slight. Nothing really surprising happens, the characters are mildly entertaining at times but mostly remain firmly rooted in their places: the uncouth Wop bouncer (fuggedaboutit) and the cultured, almost prissy black man endures the racism of the Deep South with restraint. The good ol’ boys, well, they’re just appalling. And that’s really just about it.

  2. I disagree with the argument that there are issues with the script (certainly not deep flaws). This is cinema, not real life. Upon completing my read of the (shooting) script (in one sitting) I sat exhausted a moment in front of my computer. I was sated. I did not feel cheated in any way. I didn’t care that Shirley “sprang, fully-formed into the world as an urbane, cultured man… etc.” I didn’t even care about any backstories – these were the characters as presented; take them or leave them. I chose to take them into my being and let them change something in me. So glad I did.

    I can’t comment on Farrelly’s direction as I haven’t seen the film – I saw it all coming off the page, and that was enough for me. In the screenplay, I had the impression that the record company had influenced Shirley’s decision to tour the South. I guess that’s the nuances we all read into (or perhaps skip over) in a screenplay/film.

    Funny how different reviewers “see” things differently.

  3. Saw this last night and agree there are some nice moments.

    But the script has some deep flaws, chiefly in the thin drawing of Shirley’s character. Hard to buy that he sprang, fully-formed into the world as an urbane, cultured man who is now so alien to the world of others of his race and former class.

    Yet, this is the conceit that enables all the ‘odd-couple’ schtick that sees Tony delivering a patronising homily about Shirley ‘not knowing his own people’. The fact that this man has chosen to tour the deeply racist south suggests that he knows only too well the situation of his people and where he sits in the culture. But it’s up to our working class hero, Tony Lip, to set him straight on life. Puh-lease!

    Not at all surprised that Shirley’s family had issues with this imagining of their story. And suggest Farrelly stick to gross-out comedies as this kind of material requires far more nuance and awareness.

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