You know those quaint little movies from the 90’s like Forrest Gump? Excellent film, no doubt, but as a story that covers a man’s life through decades of American history, it all felt a little bit too sanitized and optimistic for its own good. It deals with such elements like the Ku Klux Klan and the Vietnam War, but presents them a more comedic, or lighthearted fashion, not really examining the real issues. However, sometimes these films aren’t meant to examine those issues with a magnifying glass, but to just present the story of these characters. 

Based off a true friendship, Green Book tells the story of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallanoga (Viggo Mortensen), a racist night club bouncer in the 1960’s. While the night club closes down for renovations, Tony Lip needs a job and receives an offer to be a driver. His job is to drive famed pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a tour through the incredibly racist Deep South. Reluctant to take the job at first, Tony Lip eventually finds himself becoming Dr. Shirley’s driver. As they make their way through the American south, they learn things about the world that surrounds them, and things about each other as well. 

This is a film that’s entirely propped up by its two lead performances. At its core, it’s really just a standard movie about two guys overcoming the prejudices of the world, and their own prejudices as well. It’s the two magnificent performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali that really sell the story of this friendship. What we have here are two of the finest working actors at the top of their game. Both of their characters are incredibly layered with a lot of subtext and nuance, information about them being doled out in tasteful and not-preachy ways. Sure, Tony Lip throwing away two glasses that were used by black men is a simple and cliché way to show his character, but there are people like that and it perfectly gets the point across. If you didn’t know anything about Mortensen, you would think he was plucked right from an Italian neighborhood in New York. That’s just how well he embodies that type of person, down to how he talks with his hands and walks with a swagger. 

Ali gets to show his range just as well, which is especially impressive while watching the current season of True Detective. In that, he plays the same character over different time periods, but he gives each iteration their own distinct personality to show how much his character has changed. Again, with Green Book, he’s like a completely different person with this performance. Gone is deep voice and steely cold demeanor, and now exchanged for a more falsetto style and prim and proper personality. While he didn’t actually play the piano (you have to hand it [no pun intended] to hand doubles), he exemplifies the personality of somebody getting lost in their music. You see so much passion and focus in his eyes and body language, where he can truly escape the prejudiced world that continues to hold him down. He carries himself well, but you can feel the pain and lonliness in eyes, which he compensates with an excessive lifestyle. 

Peter Farrelly of Farrelly Brothers fame (where’s Bobby?) makes his dramatic directorial debut here. While he’s definitely known for his crude comedies like Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, most of them had an undercurrent of sweetness and sentimentality to them. You would think with a story based in real life about US race relations in the 1960’s that the sentimentality would be laid on thick, but Farrelly handles it with a sure enough hand. There’s definitely some feel good cheese to be had, but it mostly feels in line with the story and characters. The film is still genuinely funny at times, mostly through Mortensen’s and Ali’s entertaining interactions. It’s amusing watching them play off each other and learn things about each other and themselves. All of the story beats and structure is completely predictable and generic, but these two stars keep it afloat. 

As far as direction, it’s really nothing special. While Farrelly escapes from his comedy comfort zone with the script, his direction hasn’t seemed to advance much from his previous work. The direction is pretty flat, with a lot of locked down wide shots, over the shoulders, and your other standards. It’s not very visually exciting, but auditorily, it’s wonderful. Don Shirley was a classical and jazz pianist, so there’s of course a lot of excellent piano music from Kris Bowers that accompanies the film. It really imbues the stale proceedings with a lot of personality and fits perfectly in the context of the characters, story, and time period. Every time those ivories were tickled, it put a smile on my face, but that smile may have already been there from the performances. 

If you’re looking for an in-depth and nuanced discussion on race, then you should definitely look elsewhere. However, that’s not what Green Book wanted to be and it had no pretenses about itself. Farrelly and his co-writers Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (son of Tony Lip), wanted to tell the story about the friendship of these two people and how they were able to transcend their own prejudices. Is it a sanitized look at very serious issues? Absolutely, but a great story can’t be denied, and the story behind Green Book is a great one. 


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