Green Book was a surprise in more ways than one. Peter Farrelly’s based-on-a-true-story comedy-drama screened at LFF as the year’s Surprise Film: the best-kept secret in film (until it’s leaked online that is, leading to the disappointment of those attending the matinee performance the following day). Destined to be one of award season’s most crowd-pleasing, heartwarming release, Green Book is a completely charming, familiar but loveable experience that superbly balances its breezy humour with more weight theme work.
When Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself temporarily out of work, he reluctantly takes a job as Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) chauffeur, transporting the famed black pianist through the American Deep South during his musical tour. On the surface, the pair couldn’t be more mismatched but as their journey advances, and they are faced with the deep racism of the region, they learn from each other and forge a close friendship. Aided by ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’, a segregation-era road travel guidebook to assist African-Americans in dealing with discrimination, they come to rely on each other more so than they initially expected.
Green Book may not be a particularly inventive tale, but it sure is a lovely one. As supposedly close to fact as possible, besides some minor tweaking to the timeline, Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie’s script is co-written with Nick Vallelonga – the real-life son of Tony Lip – who helps to enrich the screenplay by supplying the letters sent by his father during his time on the road with Shirley. Adding an authenticity that we would not otherwise receive insight into, Vallelonga’s involvement corroborates a wholly sincere and genuine film that is laugh-out-loud hilarious in one breath and emotionally complex and thematically potent in the next. Green Book handles the difficult subject matter with sensitivity for the most part.
It doesn’t always strike that balance perfectly. Every now and then, Green Book’s tonal whiplash can become jarring as it flits between the genres; it can handle the comedy and it can handle the drama impressively but it’s not always so assured when layered together, experiencing a little difficulty trying to juggle the two simultaneously. Each element is sharp enough to cut through some of the more uneven moments though, so it isn’t too distracting – but it is something that can be picked up on nonetheless; an area for improvement.
A mostly charming triumph
Disappointingly shallow at times, the film’s treatment of racism feels a little misguided at times. It rightfully slams the unbelievable hypocrisies of the era well and seeks to highlight the outrage and audacity of asking a black man to perform his recitals at a Christmas party but request that he dines separately to the white guests – but it seems reluctant to condemn Tony for a similar outlook not too much earlier in the narrative. Perhaps that it down to the involvement of Tony’s family in the production of the film; a double-edged sword of sorts that both enhances the legitimacy but glosses over any character flaws.
In no way trying to excuse these issues, Green Book is a well-meaning, well-intentioned film. Clearly possessing a great deal of heart and respect for the central friendship, it hopes its tale will inspire. And Peter Farrelly, best known for his more strictly-comedic output, knows how to please an audience; here, he combines his humourous sensibilities with something much more profound. With more than a handful of moments bound to stir a crowd, this one will play big and it will play well. Individual character arcs combine to bring about something incredibly satisfying as the unlikely friendship and camaraderie develops, packed to the rafters with great character moments and (predictable but no less gratifying) narrative beats. Even clocking in at 130 minutes, it is a tight, engaging piece of filmmaking that could quickly become a holiday staple. I didn’t want it to end.
Perhaps more than most, Green Book needed to find the right on-screen talents to work. In Viggo Mortensen and Mahershal Ali, they hit the jackpot. Forming a complex, compelling dynamic that delves into perception and understanding with genuine empathy, these polar opposites come to reconcile their differences and their new-found friendship is believable and clearly felt. Mortensen delivers the more transformative turn, perfecting a sharp New York-Italian accent possessing a goofiness that charms; Ali, meanwhile, brings nuance, carefully considering the richly-layered Shirley, his precise mannerisms and deepest thoughts, particularly powerful in the more intimate moments of the film. Mortensen and Ali are fantastic individually but even stronger, superlative even, when sharing the screen. It’s worth noting that while underused, Linda Cardellini is terrific in a supporting capacity too, giving a warm and generous performance.
In Conclusion: Green Book
In spite of its issues, Green Book is a rich, entertaining and frequently powerful piece. Its conventionality (and sometimes clumsy handling of its themes) may turn some off; its crowd-pleasing attributes and the uplifting message may endear others towards it. I found myself swept up with every minute of the literal and metaphorical journey this once incompatible pair undertake, endlessly charmed by the unexpected triumph. Some depth would be appreciated but, for the most part, Green Book is something to write home about.
Green Book is released into select theatres in the US on Friday 16th November and will expand soon after; a UK release is scheduled for February 1st.