‘Green Book’ is destined for golden nominations
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Written by: Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie
Starring: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali
“Green Book” – “When growing up, I saw segregation. I saw racial discrimination. I saw those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women…and I didn’t like it.” – U.S. Congressman John Lewis – GA (D), during a Nov. 16, 2016 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross
During the same interview, Lewis reflected on his childhood during the 40’s and 50’s, when segregation was everywhere, and he asked his parents, “Why?”
Lewis said that they just responded, “That’s the way it is.”
Set in 1962, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned concert pianist living in New York City - who is black - knows how the south is too, but he wants embark on a music tour with his bass player and cellist in the aforementioned part of the country anyway.
He just needs a driver and hires Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), otherwise known as Tony Lip. Tony is a hard-hitting bouncer with a crass and limited vocabulary, and usually employs a huge appetite. He'll jump into an all-you-can-eat hot dog contest without a second thought. He, unfortunately, displays racism in one key scene, but he loves his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their kids, and makes a decent living. Tony’s club, however, suddenly closes, and he needs a job. Now he works for Dr. Shirley! Dr. Shirley - who Tony refers to as “Doc” - is a sophisticated socialite, and with Tony’s burly persona, these two polar opposites head into a buddy film that feels like a cross between “Midnight Run” (1988) and “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989).
The picture’s central premise dives into unpleasant institutional prejudice, and it covers plenty of uncomfortable and unethical moments, but it also works as a warm and sometimes riotous comedy due to Mortensen’s and Ali’s individual performances and their overflowing chemistry. Instead of the conflicting tones falling into audience distraction, Tony's and Doc's moments of colloquial comedy bring frequent relief to their adverse environment.
Now, Tony has walked through life - for 40-some years – completely unaware of his social liabilities, but what he lacks in grace, he fills with candor. He’s a freewheeling social conversationalist who fits perfectly within his local circles but figuratively bumps into roadblocks when strolling with posh crowds. For instance, he spits out a fancy hord d’oeuvre at a nice reception, and again, without a second thought.
You see, Tony would much rather grab a bucket of takeout KFC.
His everyman persona is part of his charm, but another is his Teflon exterior to shake off (or sometimes not even notice) verbal slights or jabs. While Doc regularly points out Tony’s unsophisticated practices – such as throwing out a paper cup from of a moving car – he never takes offense.
He usually just continues unfettered with his day, but yes, he does absorb Doc’s advice, like, “You can do better, Mr. Vallelonga.”
Doc and Tony might come from opposite worlds, but their differences do not escalate, and surface-level discourse never becomes irreversibly offensive to one another. Since, they are a united two-person team, the audience doesn’t feel negative about their back-and-forth disagreements, and the picture organically presents these moments as opportunities for growth.
Doc and Tony are also united against segregation throughout their stops in Memphis, Little Rock, Macon, and more, and their journey also opens Mr. Lip’s eyes. In turn, Doc’s sees in new ways too and directly because of Tony. Your eyes may also open, when discovering who directed this celluloid blend of life lessons and flat-out hilarious comedy.
“Dumb and Dumber” (1994) director Peter Farrelly.
Sure, Farrelly knows humor, but he takes a leap into more mature spaces and provokes plenty of laughs without diving into gimmicks, which is his usual trademark (i.e. “Shallow Hal” (2001) or “Stuck on You” (2003)).
Instead, he embraces this pair during their somewhat-dubious voyage - via an automobile and asphalt - and in the process, Farrelly will surely earn himself a Golden Globe – Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) nomination, and Mortensen and Ali are destined for Golden Globe - Best Actor (Musical or Comedy) nods. His film and the performances are that good, and while Mortensen absolutely transforms into the unrefined Tony, Ali is jaw-dropping masterful on the piano.
Not unlike U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Tony and Doc cannot stomach practices in the deep south either, but what about each other? Well, let’s just say that you don’t need to bring a smile to the movie theatre, because yours will repeatedly and warmly appear during your golden “Green Book” experience.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.