Few films have tried to balance two very different styles into one movie. Green Book is an harmonious accomplishment of just that. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the film is a very much a road trip movie but with tremendous heart and a heartfelt message.
The story goes that a New York Italian family man, Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) searches for a new job to provide for his loving family. He soon comes across an employment opportunity as the driver for the decorated African American pianist: Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who needs somebody to drive him on a concert tour across America. Lip accepts and the two go on a very ‘enlightening’ road trip.
Now the film wastes no time establishing the dichotomy between these characters. Lip is a very simple-minded Italian New Yorker that loves his family and typically loves to solve things with his fists rather than his brain which hasn’t had much formal education in it at all. Doc Shirley on the other hand has PHDs in psychology, music and theology and demonstrates his intellectual prowess from the get go leaving our humble Italian man a bit confused and scratching his head like Homer Simpson.
It’s a great premise that plays to its strengths as the film goes on despite the controversial liberties that the writers made from the true story of these two real-life figures in history. Regardless of how far from truth these people were in history, the film delivers a great little bromance between these two contrasting individuals that makes you root for them and human beings in general.
Viggo Mortensen continues to be a very underrated actor in the public eye as his portrayal of a strong accented Italian American is spot on and isn’t shy to shoot mannerisms whenever possible to convince you of it. You wouldn’t be able to recognise his voice from his previous eclectic roles such as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings let alone his actual real-life voice. Mahershala Ali plays the intelligence and maturity of Doc Shirly with grace but to nit-pick, there was one scene of important emotional exposition (that you’ve seen in the trailers) where I found his facial expression looking more trying than realistic.
Overall though, the acting is brilliant but definitely doesn’t look effortless which comes down to the directing. Peter Farelly should be given props by how well he directed the story to not only be a story of friendship but one of zeitgeist in African American discrimination in the 1960s. With every beautiful light moment of simple comedy or heartfelt exchange, there’s an example of shocking racism and prejudice in many American towns from a hotel not allowing people of colour to dine, to a police officer arresting Shirley just because.
Herein lies why the title of the movie is called the Green Book. The Green Book is a guide that allows the reader to see which motels and restaurants are safe for African-American travellers to go by to avoid mistreatment and persecution. You get a very down-to-earth and seemingly modern depiction of just how casual and established racism was in American society. The film makes a point to show that despite Doc being incredible accomplished in academics and musicianship, his African American lineage still leads him to being treated lower than the average bear by the very white people that invites him to play at some of these concerts. This double standard is painted vividly enough to showcase that racism became an established mentality that many followed not because they were actually racist, but just because they wanted to follow the rules sadly.
Yet the film does a terrific job of making this film not so heavily politicised as another staunch, Oscar-baiting, SJW message on discrimination. Farrelly and the screenwriters made these down-to-earth and modern examples of racism so rampart but casual and every day, that their juxtaposition really helps pinpoints ourselves to our cherished creature comforts which we take for granted. It makes every moment where Doc Shirly can’t buy a suit because the store doesn’t sell to African Americans that much more hard hitting because it’s something we do so easily.
And it blends with the other half of this story so well. The Green Book is as much a message about the prejudices of the past as it is a feel-good story of family and friendship. The film’s length and editing could do with some trimming though. There is also a scene at the beginning of the movie where you see Lip having some racism of him own that sticks out like a sore thumb. Like maybe it’s trying to establish that Lip’s racist ways is about to be changed by Doc but it was the most unsubtle and unnecessary way to do it when there were other more implied examples of this.
It’s a shame The Green Book didn’t open for Christmas here in Sydney. It’s a lovely Christmas film that isn’t trying to be so pretentious in its subject matter. Many people can appreciate this tale on top of getting a fascinating zeitgeist of the 1960s to boot.
The Green Book is in Australian cinemas from 24 January.