In the 1960’s, Tony Lip, a family man thug (played by Viggo Mortensen), is hired by Dr. Don Shirley, a jazz pianist (played by Mahershala Ali), as his driver for a record company-sponsored tour throughout the deep south. Tony is short tempered, none-too-bright and barely conceals his bigotry. While Dr. Shirley is far more educated and disciplined, he also carries baggage that pits the two against one another. As they drive through dangerous areas of the country, each concert stop becomes a test for the both of them in different ways.
I had been avoiding “Green Book,” based solely on its glib and jokey trailer. It appeared to be made in the same manner as the glossy, contrived and condescending “The Blind Side” or “Hidden Figures” and, thankfully, is much better than either of those.
I’m a staunch defender of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which has been accused over time of being casually racist but is actually a far more nuanced work. It’s about how longstanding prejudice and a racist mindset can separate us from understanding one another. At the end of that film, Miss Daisy’s realization that her driver, Hoke, is her only friend is tinged with sadness and regret. She spent a lifetime keeping him either apart from her or talking to the back of his head. On the surface, “Green Book” appears to be a reversal of “Driving Miss Daisy” but, wisely, goes in another direction entirely.
This is one of the season’s surprise sleepers. Despite the trailer making this appear like a sitcom about racism, it isn’t. In fact, while there are humorous moments, this isn’t a comedy.
“Green Book” is somehow both tough and subtle, working with a fully developed narrative and two wonderful performances by Mortensen and Ali. Both of the central characters are eccentric, stubborn and flawed- the actors humanize and illuminate the hidden depths of their roles. I admired Mortensen’s commitment to making Tony a sympathetic dope, while Ali brings layers of unspoken complexity to his character. Stand-up comic Sebastian Maniscalco shines in a supporting role and Linda Cardellini is excellent playing Tony’s wife, inhabiting humanity in what could have been a throwaway role.
Director Peter Farrelly, working for the first time without his brother Bobby, is best known as the helmer of “There’s Something About Marty,” “Kingpin,” “Shallow Hal” and both of the “Dumb and Dumber” movies. To say the least, he’s not known for drama and his command of this material is a great surprise. An indication of how well this works is that the early scenes immediately pull us in. Before the premise is fully set up, the character development and period detail are enough to keep us enticed as the narrative warms up.
A smarter movie would have developed entirely from the perspective of Dr. Don Shirley, whose point of view is unique (a quality that becomes especially apparent over the course of the story). Tony is a strong character and Mortensen makes him likable enough but we’ve seen the Italian-American side of this story before. As much as I liked the two closing scenes, they felt contrived.
At 130-minutes, it’s long, even as it admirably takes it time to flesh out the story (it reminded me of long-form dramas like “Scent of a Woman”). It’s never a mystery where the story is going- really, has there ever been a road movie where, once the journey is done, the two main characters still hate each other? However, there are moments and revelations here that surprise.
“Green Book” is more of a gentle ode to an unexpected friendship than a takedown of lingering prejudice, an approach that surprisingly works. When violence or demonstrative racism takes place during Tony and Don’s journey, the film somehow avoids heavy handedness and makes the valid point of choosing one’s battles and standing above the rotten behavior of others. Despite the plot’s formulaic blueprints, this is a stronger and smarter work than I expected.
-originally published in Maui Time Weekly