****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 3.8 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. A finely crafted, classic Hollywood, feel good tale that is worth seeing either in the theatre or on Netflix or cable.
Green Book, written by Nick Vallelonga, Bryan Curry and Peter Farrelly and directed by Farrelly, is the true story of the relationship between African-American Jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga during a concert tour of the deep south in 1962. The film stars Mahershala Ali as Dr. Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony.
If I am being honest, I have to admit that I had little interest in Green Book prior to going to see it. The film looked like a slight twist on the stale Driving Miss Daisy idea and seemed a bit too mainstream and, dare I say it, simple and saccharine, for my tastes. Even after I heard from a few people that it was good, I was still hesitant. But, since I have MoviePass, I figured what the hell, so I rolled the dice and went to the theatre with low expectations.
As is often the case in life, my low expectations were greatly exceeded. To be clear, Green Book is not a great or original film, but it is a good one, mostly because it is well crafted, which as a film critic, I can tell you is a rare thing nowadays.
Green Book is a traditional Hollywood film in its structure and genre. It is at once a road picture, a relationship/friendship comedy and a Christmas movie all at once, that touches upon a deeper social issue…in this case, racism. If Green Book came out ten or twenty years ago, it would be pure Oscar-bait, and would no doubt win a handful of prizes and maybe even the big prize, Best Picture, because of its classical structure, “social consciousness” and optimism. But those days where nice movies about coming together across racial lines can bring home Oscar gold are long gone. Green Book will not win any Oscars in 2018, in fact, as our politics and racial politics have become more and more tribal, even liking Green Book somehow leaves you open to charges of being racist.
In our current age where “Diversity and Inclusivity” are the most holy of religions, and racism the most common and scurrilous of charges, Green Book makes for an easy target. The biggest issue some people have with the film is that it is a story about American racism told through the eyes of a “White” man (White is in quotes because depending on the severity of your racism, some folks do not consider Italians to be White. Personally, not only do I not consider Italians to be White, I don’t even consider them to be human…of course, I’m kidding…sort of). White men are currently atop the Most Unwanted list among the cultural elite at the moment, and when the topic of racism is involved, then White Men’s perspectives are most definitely anathema. To some people, telling a story about racism from a White man’s perspective in this day and age is akin to making Schindler’s List from Amon Goth’s (Ralph Fiennes Nazi character) point of view.
Green Book, to its credit, doesn’t shamelessly pander on issues of prejudice and race as some of the most interesting scenes in the film are when Tony argues that Dr. Shirley is just as bad as he is because Dr. Shirley holds the same prejudices against Italians (or other Whites) as Tony does against Blacks. These scenes are pretty uncomfortable on one level because Tony is saying aloud what you aren’t allowed to say anymore, and also because they are logically and rationally right on the money and cut through the subjective experience/ victimhood identity that so skews and soils the politics and racial politics of today.
What makes the film interesting to me though are not the racial dynamics, which have been examined ad nauseum in other films over the years, but rather the class dynamics. To me, Dr. Shirley is less a symbol of the Black man than he is the rich, effete intellectual while Tony is less a symbol of the White man than the poor/working class brute. As the film shows, the two men have a much easier time overcoming their racial differences than their class differences, and that to me, makes Green Book an interesting film.
Regardless of how you feel about the politics of the film, Peter Farrelly does a solid job of walking the line between comedy and drama. Farrelly wisely goes the Odd Couple route and makes Tony the slovenly fool and Dr. Shirley the prim and proper, tight-assed snob. This contrast works for laughs and also helps to build a genuine relationship between the two men.
Farrely’s greatest achievement is in the pacing as he keeps the film tight, and there are no wasted scenes just for comedic effect. The narrative drives efficiently through the entire story, and while it is all pretty predictable, it is never done predictably.
Mahershala Ali does simply stellar work as Dr. Don Shirley, the uptight musical genius in need of protection from the more nefarious elements of White America in the South. There is a speech Dr. Shirley gives early in the film where he speaks on the need to always maintain dignity, and that speech very clearly elucidates Dr. Shirley’s cosmology and character and his survival mechanism in a hostile world.
Ali masterfully inhabits Dr. Shirley, most notably with his commitment to the character’s distinct physicality. Ali’s Shirley maintains his dignity and decorum under all circumstances and it is reflected in his impeccable posture. It is when Dr. Shirley starts to lose his grip though, where Ali really shines, letting the turmoil that boils just beneath the veneer of controlled perfection break through the surface to reveal the conflicted and tormented storm raging inside him.
Viggo Mortensen deftly brings the Tony character to life with a combination of grounded humanity and comedic aplomb. Mortensen does a lot of heavy lifting with this role and he runs the great risk of falling into empty caricature (the big-hearted, Italian lug), but he uses his craft and skill wisely to avoid that trap by making Tony both earnest and wily, and rigid yet flexible. While Tony is certainly a simple character on one level, Mortensen never fails to make him morally and ethically complex and compelling.
Maybe I liked the film because Tony, the Italian meathead from the Bronx, reminded me of my Irish working class uncles from Brooklyn. My uncles all had the same prejudices and all threw around the same casual racism as Tony, but they too were still decent human beings….not perfect by any stretch…but very decent. My uncles, and Tony, are, like all people of all races and ethnicities, complicated in that way.
Linda Cardellini plays Tony’s wife Dolores, and she reminded me of some of my Irish uncle’s wonderful Italian wives (I know…the scandal!!…an Irishman marrying an Italian!! Talk about a mixed marriage!!) from Brooklyn. Cardellini turns what could have been a throwaway role into a real gem, giving Dolores multiple dimensions and palpable intentions that enhance the film a great deal.
In conclusion, Green Book is a classic, traditional, mainstream Hollywood film that in an earlier age, rightly or wrongly, would be much more highly regarded than it is now. The film boasts two winning performances from its leads and a terrific supporting performance from Cardellini, and is at times genuinely funny and profoundly moving. Green Book is not the greatest piece of cinema you’ll ever see, but even a cynical cinephile like me found it thoroughly entertaining and at times even insightful, and that is why I recommend you check it out, either in the theatre or on Netflix/cable when available.
If in our current tumultuous and contentious age, you find yourself feeling nostalgic, not for the early 1960’s when Black people were invisible and discrimination was rampant and violent, but rather for a time when finding common humanity wasn’t seen as weakness or betrayal of your tribe but rather as a sign of enlightened evolution, then Green Book is definitely for you…and you and I have a lot in common.