Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini. Directed by Peter Farrelly.
It’s award season, which means a celebration of movies but it also means business being business and mud being flung at other movies so that each movie can potentially win. Rightfully or wrongfully a lot of these issues seem not to rise until the sweet smell of an Oscar buzz comes wafting around to a film. Bryan Singer’s ongoing controversy is not new news, in fact, it was a well-stated fact as far back as 1997, and yet it never hurt the box office of any of his X-Men films or his shows such as House. And yet, controversy has found it’s way to Green Book.
The film itself, the story of Italian-American bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga who for eight weeks before Christmas in the mid-1960s was driver and bodyguard to Black Pianist Don Shirley as they toured the deep south.
The Green Book of the title is a guide for “coloured” people in the south where they will can stay and eat and be served without hassle which in and of itself is a disgusting thing to think about. The film does make the most of looking into the time but also trying to be a family-friendly film that looks into a friendship. In a way, this is the inverse of Driving Miss Daisy, except there’s a little more nuance.
For all the controversy of the film that Shirley’s brother stated that he and Don were closer than the film states, and that Don saw Tony Lip as nothing more than an employee might very well be true, but it sort of doesn’t matter. As with a film like BlacKkKlansman, the things that are changed aren’t to re-write history but to bring a mass appeal to a story that is sorely needed in a time like this.
There is a one sided-ness to the film though, given that Vallelonga’s song Nick co-write and produced the film, as well as having a cameo and much of Vallelonga’s family are in the film too. But the film does feel like it has a love of the story it’s telling. Peter Farrelly, directing away from his brother Bobby, knows how to do a road movie (Dumb and Dumber is a comedy classic) and while it veers into broader comedy and doesn’t always know how to investigate its issues is a strong film that will have mass appeal.
The problem really is a lack of depth, which might be in search of a wide audience. Tony Lip is a crook, he steals, he (by his own admission) bullshits, he beats people up but the film never really investigates this, it’s part of his charm. Similarly, his outright racism at the beginning of the film is never explored further. A scene in which his wife Dolores (played by an as usual wasted Linda Cardellini) hires two black men to fix a problem in their kitchen sees his family show up to “keep her company” and for Tony to then throw the glasses the two black men used in the bin. There is also a lot of Tony talking about what black people love (Fried chicken, the blues etc.) without ever understanding his own prejudice.
Similarly Don Shirley is shown to be a snob, he explains he is neither accepting by the black community (for being wealthy and affluent) nor the white community (for his race) and yet when it comes to the black community several instances in which they try to reach out to him is met with hostility. His homosexuality is referenced once (he has a late night liaison with a white man – but it’s never mentioned again) and then dropped as if the film wants to have an LGBT sticker but without doing the work for it.
Luckily Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are absolute pros at their job and can do this sort of thing in their sleep. As Tony Lip (perhaps known to some people as crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi on The Sopranos – yeah that’s him!) Mortensen is a portly but likeable everyman, he walks the walk and talks the talk in way only the very best actors can do. Despite never really getting to do much but be a kind of fat dummy, Mortensen finds avenues for empathy especially when showing his growing resentment for the way white people treat Shirley.
Ali brings something of the refined nature of his Luke Cage villain Cottonmouth in the way Shirley is physically, he has a way of talking which commands people talk and while his piano playing may be the work of something optical illusions, his commitment to the role never falters. Ali won praise for his turn as drug dealer Juan in Moonlight, but here as Don Shirley he manages to wring everything he can from the role including moments of physical comedy.
There are moments of nicely subtle commentary, like a scene in which Shirley suggests Tony change his surname for the duration of the trip to Valley as it’s easier to say – Tony rebuffs saying if they don’t like his name they can kiss his backside. But there isn’t enough commentary on that, nor the nobility of Shirley refusing to lose his cool in any given situation knowing full well a black man cannot lose composure in a white world.
The film overall is an enjoyable time, offering a story of friendship in a time when it wasn’t allowed and while it’s historical accuracy might be downplayed or changed somewhat the theme it’s aiming for is one that we can all enjoy. After all this is the story of two men from different worlds who became friends because of a job, and the film itself never forgets that what it wants to do is to tell a story that people can get behind and enjoy, above all though, those two performances are so wonderfully enjoyable you’ll forgive it its sins by the time the end rolls around.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.