Green Book is a delightful and inspiring story fueled by terrific performances by its leads, a sharp screenplay, and deft direction.
Premiering at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (where it took home the coveted 2018 People's Choice Award), Green Book emerged as one of this year's leading and surprising Oscar contenders. The film is the latest work by director Peter Farrelly, best known as one half of the Farrelly brothers duo behind comedy hits like Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary. Here, he makes the leap to different territory, chronicling a real-life friendship that blossomed during a tumultuous time for America. There might have been some fear that Farrelly would be out of his element, but that couldn't be further from the case. Green Book is a delightful and inspiring story fueled by terrific performances by its leads, a sharp screenplay, and deft direction.
Green Book is set in 1962, picking up as working class Italian-American Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself needing new work after the Copacabana closes for two months due to renovations. As he looks around for a job to support his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two kids, Tony interviews for a driving position with Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Shirley, an African-American classical pianist, is set to tour the deep South and needs an associate to not only transport him to concert venues, but also act as security if any issues arise.
Even though the job will keep Tony away from his family for eight long weeks, the nice payday encourages him to take it. Promising Dolores he'll be home for Christmas, Tony hits the road with Dr. Shirley and the other two members of Shirley's musical trio, using the Negro Motorist Green Book as a guide to find colored-friendly establishments at the various tour stops. Vallelonga and Shirley will have to work hard to overcome their personal differences and the injustices they'll face along the way. But it could be a very rewarding experience for both men, changing their lives for the better in more ways than one.
After its run at the festival circuit, Green Book drew several comparisons to Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy, leading some viewers to find it a bit safe and conventional in its storytelling and themes. There's no denying audiences should be able to plot out the narrative's trajectory in their heads, but that doesn't diminish the journey in the slightest. Tony Lip's son Nick Vallelonga is one of three credited co-writers (along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie), which helps the film find its crucial sense of authenticity. While Nick didn't accompany his father and Shirley on the tour, the script no doubt takes inspiration from Tony's stories about his time in the South. The writing team deserves credit for blending comedy and drama, as Green Book is never short on levity, yet still shines a spotlight on the rather serious and frustrating racial prejudices that were so prevalent in the segregation era. A number of clever callbacks and payoffs peppered throughout the script also ensure no scene goes to waste, as the film cruises through its runtime.
Farrelly specializes in gross-out humor that doesn't work for everyone, but he shows a refreshing constraint here, handling potentially sensitive subject matter with the grace and care it deserves. He tones down his usual sensibilities, with all of the comedy feeling natural and in-character. Collaborating with production designer Tim Galvin and cinematographer Sean Porter, the director also takes moviegoers straight back to the 1960s, drawing viewers in with its tone and aesthetic from the opening minutes. Farrelly definitely borrows from the Martin Scorsese playbook in places (the presence of the Copacabana will bring Goodfellas to mind), employing a catchy soundtrack full of old school pop tunes to complement Shirley's virtuoso piano performances. But his approach doesn't come across as derivative, instead adding to the already captivating atmosphere.
For all the strong work by Farrelly and his crew, it's hard to imagine Green Book working as well as it does without the presence of Mortensen and Ali. The two actors are a perfectly matched pair, playing off each other with great chemistry. Mortensen arguably has the showier role of the two, completely transforming into the larger-than-life figure of Tony Lip. After putting together a string of more serious-minded turns, it's nice to see the actor loosen up and have some fun as the street-wise bouncer. In a lesser thespian's hands, Tony Lip may have become a caricature, but Mortensen maintains Vallelonga's humanity throughout. Ali gives a reserved and soulful performance as Shirley, tapping into the character's inner turmoil of being a person torn between two worlds. He gives off a fittingly regal and sophisticated aura, but also has convincing dramatic outbursts to make it a well-rounded portrayal. Both leads have rightfully been in discussion for Oscar nominations and definitely deserve them.
With so much of the focus on Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley's dynamic, the supporting cast unfortunately gets lost in the background. Farrelly populates New York with other members of the Vallelonga family, and while they deliver a solid laugh or two during brief interludes in the second act, they aren't given much to work with. Even Cardellini (who makes the most of her short screen time) amounts to little more than the housewife missing her loving husband. To be fair, this is most likely a byproduct of the story's nature, rather than negligence on the part of the creative team. The crux of Green Book's plot doesn't lend itself to being an ensemble piece, but it should be noted none of the actors are bad in their roles. They all do what's necessary, filling out the world Farrelly created. The lone exception is Dimiter D. Marinov as Oleg, a member of Shirley's trio, who has a few interactions with Tony Lip that hammer home some vital life lessons.
Green Book may not be as artistically daring or ambitious as some of 2018's other awards contenders, but it definitely lives up to the buzz and should be in the running for several major Oscars. The movie works on all fronts across the board, and its heartwarming story makes it the perfect film to catch over the Thanksgiving holiday. It could even be seen as the ideal antidote to today's divisive and trying times, depicting a touching tale of two people from wildly different backgrounds coming together and forging a lifelong bond. For cinephiles looking to keep up on the year's best as awards season heats up, Green Book is worth seeing in theaters.
Green Book is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 130 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence, and suggestive material.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments!
- Green Book (2018) release date: Nov 21, 2018