Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Release Date: November 16th, 2018 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Farrelly Actors: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton
n New York City in 1962, a fight breaks out in the Copacabana nightclub, prompting bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to toss the offender out – and to give him a hefty helping of his meaty fists. Lip isn’t just a hotheaded, Italian tough guy, however; he also steals a gangster’s prized hat, just so he can return it later to curry favor with the bigwig. When the club closes for renovations, Tony is in need of some temporary work – but that tends to take a backseat to goofing off, such as challenging his obese friend to a hot dog eating contest. His only relief from a verbal thrashing by his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) is the fact that he wins.
When Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned pianist, seeks a professional driver for a concert tour in the deep South, Tony’s name comes up a number of times. It’s an 8-week gig, with decent pay, but Shirley doesn’t just want a chauffeur – he needs a personal assistant, a valet, who can iron shirts and shine shoes. Plus, he needs someone who can handle a little trouble. And considering that Shirley is black, there’s bound to be trouble where they’re headed. But Tony happens to be overtly racist and considerably uncomfortable being a servant to anyone – especially to someone of an ethnicity outside his own.
“Do you foresee any issues in working for a black man?” There’s a light, comic tone to the start, suggesting that the unlikely duo’s inevitable confrontations with racial intolerance will be more along the lines of slapstick-oriented misadventures rather than dark, thought-provoking drama. Indeed, the two couldn’t be more different, and this is shown through humorous – yet very human – interactions. Shirley is wealthy, refined, composed, well-groomed, and calm; Tony is trashy, brash, curt, coarse, a slob, and uneducated. They immediately get on each other’s nerves – from the doc’s elitist inclinations, such as requiring a specific brand of piano at each venue and a bottle of Cutty Sark in his room every night, to Tony’s roguish behaviors, such as chain-smoking, a monstrous appetite, and a constant use of profanity.
Soon, however, they begin to bond through music, the scrutinization of proprieties – and a certain unspoken partnership, based upon the pride of doing a job right, and protection against outspoken prejudices. And this is despite the fact that Tony is about as narrow-minded as they come. With a flair for turning sticky situations into satisfying cinematic scenarios, “Green Book” has a bit of fun with these characters, even as it observes the distressing, checkered past of the American South.
“You only win when you maintain your dignity.” Since “Green Book” is merely inspired by a true story, it feels no need to adhere strictly to facts, particular incidents, or the severity of the times. To deflect what could have been a series of morose episodes – involving separate hotels and bathrooms, run-ins with the police, and unaccommodating businesses (the titular Green Book was a guide for places that would welcome African-Americans across a still-segregated America) – the film upholds its levity for the sake of making frequent dourness more palatable (which is not entirely unexpected, coming from director Peter Farrelly, who co-directed “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary”). Moments that remind of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Pretty Woman,” and “The Odd Couple” alternate with more intricate examinations of race relations (and even the complexities of human sexuality) to create a surprisingly well-balanced picture, brimming with emotional material as much as humor.
The two leads are quite impressive, managing to overcome the limitations of their largely stock roles to create a warmth and an energy not often found in such softball approaches to periods of historical despair. Even though its subjects are handled with kid gloves, it’s difficult to dismiss the film’s good-naturedness and positivity in the face of deep-seated adversity; it’s simply not designed to be too much more than an upbeat look at an uncommon friendship. It may trade intensity and profundity for crowd-pleasing entertainment value, but it’s a rewarding decision (save for the overly neat and tidy conclusion, which ignores matters of contracts and pay and further discrimination for the mood of holiday cheer).
– Mike Massie