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Josh Reviews Green Book

Set in 1962, the film Green Book tells the story of the eight weeks that African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) spent on the road together.  The out-of-work Tony was hired as Don Shirley’s driver, as Shirley’s jazz trio embarked on a tour of the Deep South.  Tony’s assignment, from Don’s record label, was to make sure that Don made it to each of his pre-booked dates, and to take care of any trouble that might arise along the way.  The men at first seem like oil and water, but as their weeks on the road progress, they eventually strike up an unlikely friendship.

The film is based on a true story, and the screenplay was written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, along with Peter Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie.  The film’s title refers to the Negro Motorist Green Book, a handbook used by African-American travelers in that era

Green Book is a warm fable the likes of which is a little out of style these days, and I suppose one could find fault with the film for the way it follows very familiar beats.  You know from minute one that the very different Tony and Don will overcome their initial mutual dislike, and very different ethnic and class backgrounds, to become friends by the time the end-credits role.  Trust me, I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that here in the opening paragraphs of my review.

But while it’s story-beats might feel a little familiar, I found Green Book to be a delight, primarily because of the exceptional work of the two lead actors.

I have been a fan of Mahershala Ali’s since his days as the best part of The 4400 (a sci-fi show that was never quite as good as I’d hoped it would be).  Mr. Ali has been doing consistently great work for years, but he’s really shot into the spotlight recently with his amazing work in Moonlight and a fun recurring role on the first season of Netflix’s Luke Cage.  He’s terrific here as Don Shirley.  What I love about this film, and Mr. Ali’s performance, is that they have avoided the stereotype of the perfect, angelic African-American character.  Don Shirley is not Hoke (from Driving Miss Daisy).  No, Don Shirley is… well, an uptight prick.  He’s an extraordinarily talented, genius-level musician, but he’s also stuck-up, curt, isolated and lonely.  This is not an easy-to-like character.  Mr. Ali’s work (and the strong script), however, allow us to understand him and empathize with him as we gradually learn more about who Don Shirley is and why he is that way.  We see his daily struggles against vicious prejudice and his incredible core of strength and dignity in not just persevering, but pushing back against these ignorant attitudes on a daily, even hourly basis.  (The revelation that Don has chosen, of his own accord, to go tour in the Deep South is the key to understanding his character.)

Then there is Viggo Mortensen, who bowled me over, yet again, with his incredible ability to transform his voice and his entire physicality to inhabit this role.  Consider some of Mr. Mortensen’s most famous roles: as the heroic Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, as the vicious Russian gangster in Eastern Promises, and now here as the heavy-set, jovial Italian-American Tony.  Each one of those characters is completely different from the others.  It’s hard to believe this is the same actor.  I love the character that Mr. Mortensen has created here.  Tony is not well-educated (he can barely write a simple letter to his wife) and is a bullshit artist of the highest order.  In the early scenes of the film, he engages in a casual racism that is, seen with today’s eyes, horrifying.  And yet, the film also allows us to see that his sweetness, his loyalty, and his decency.  (Two key moments: Late in the film, Tony learns a secret about Don to which we expect him to react with disgust, and yet he is surprisingly sweet and supportive.  Second: as the film unfolds, we see Tony given several opportunities to make a lot of money — money he and his family dearly needs — by taking jobs for the mob, and yet Tony consistently finds a way to avoid having to do so.)

Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly, and I must say, I was very impressed.  I respect the films that Peter and his brother Bobby Farrelly have made (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin, and many more) and yet, while those films were exceptionally well-made, none of them have ever been quite up my alley.  They just haven’t been my comedic cup of tea.  But I think it’s Mr. Farrelly’s comedic skill that made Green Book so enjoyable.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a drama, not a comedy.  And yet, there are quite a number of wonderful comedic moments woven throughout the film, and this is a big part of what made it such an enjoyable experience to watch despite the often heavy subject matter.  This isn’t a film with a lot of actual jokes.  Rather, the comedy flows from the characters, and their interactions with one another.  Mr. Ali and Mr. Mortensen prove to be a potent comedic duo, guided by the sharp script and Mr. Farrelly’s steady hand on the wheel and mastery of tone.

Speaking of which, there’s a gentle warmth to the film that I found central to it’s working as well as it does.  This is a tricky thing.  As I wrote earlier, Green Book’s good-natured heart can feel a little old-fashioned today.  This type of buddy-movie, in which both characters learn from one another, can feel a trifle cliche.  But Mr. Farrelly keeps command of the tone, preventing the film from veering into schmaltz or silliness, and the two main actors are just so compelling that I was quite captured by the story.

I also want to comment that I adored Linda Cardellini’s work in the film as Tony’s wife Dolores.  I’ve been a huge fan since Freaks and Geeks, and Ms. Cardellini is exceptional, as usual, here.  Dolores is a small role, but critical, and Ms. Cardellini just kills in every second she’s on screen, turning what could have been a flat role into a rich, fully-realized character who gets a few of the film’s most crowd-pleasing moments.

There’s been some backlash against the film, and criticism of it for “spoon-feeding racism to white people”.  I don’t feel that’s accurate.  I agree the film is poorly titled (it’s not really about the Green Book at all, and those expecting the film to be about that will be disappointed), and I can see the argument of those who wish the film allowed us to get deeper into Don Shirley and his journey.  (The film is a bit more focused on the white character of Tony and his journey.)  But this isn’t a white savior movie.  This isn’t Driving Miss Daisy (a film that I love, by the way, but whose depiction of an angelic black man can rightly be critiqued as overly simplistic), and it certainly isn’t The Help (a film that was praised for being about an overlooked group of African-American women but really was just about the one white girl).   Owen Gleiberman wrote a terrific rebuttal for Variety, in defense of Green Book, that eloquently captures my opinion — it’s well-worth a read.

Is Green Book a deep, wrenching look at this country’s horrendous history of racial prejudice?  Well no, not really.  But it’s not intending to be, and I don’t believe in criticizing a movie for not being what you might want it to be.  The film does deal with racial prejudices, both in Tony and in many/most of the white people the two encounter during their travels down South.  But this movie is not the be-all and end-all statement on racism in this country.  That’s OK!  Personally, I did find Green Book to be very moving in a number of scenes that depicted the slights, both major and minor, that Don Shirley had to endure on a regular basis.  I thought the film was successful in incorporating those issues into this story while also telling the story of these two characters that it set out to tell.

I really enjoyed Green Book.  It tells a story that is simple and yet also profound.  Any movie with a positive message of the values of overcoming perceived differences and understanding one another is one that should be valued and praised here in 2018.  But more than that, Green Book is enjoyable because of the incredible performances of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and the sweet, true story it tells of the unexpected friendship between these two very different men.  I highly recommend this film.

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