Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimeter Marinov
Director: Peter Farrelly
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes: When Tony Lip (Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger-as well as unexpected humanity and humor-they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.
20 years ago, if I told you Peter Farrelly would direct what could end up being the winner of Best Picture at the Academy Awards, you would probably look at me like I was from another planet. While Farrelly has established himself as a very talented and successful comedy writer and director, we have never seen him go in a very dramatic direction before. Fortunately for anyone who watches Green Book, you will see that his past experiences translate very well in this movie. A serious yet funny story and incredible chemistry between Mortensen and Ali help make Green Book one of the best films of the year.
The film follows Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), as he agrees to be the driver for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a famous black musician who is doing a concert tour in the Jim Crow-era South and needs a driver who can handle himself if something goes wrong. Naturally, the two come from two very different walks of life and must learn to understand one another for the sake of completing the tour without getting killed in the dangerous parts of this region. While this is a very serious story, one of the things that stood out to me is just how consistently funny the dialogue was. I expected a few one-liners and jokes every once in a while, but this movie kept them coming for most of the 130 minute runtime. If you had no knowledge of Farrelly’s comedy background before this film, it would probably come as no surprise after you watch this movie. Most of the comedy comes from Farrelly’s ability to direct Mortensen into giving one of the best performances of his career. Mortensen has the difficult job of trying to balance a character who is incredibly ignorant and flawed, but at the same time is morally sound and charming enough to win the audience over. While Tony does some things that any knowledgeable person would recognize as small-minded, the personal development and growth he goes through helps us understand how some of the easiest cures to bigotry are exposure and experience with people who come from a different background than you do. It is an absolute joy watching someone we can empathize with grow as an individual and watch as their old way of thinking slowly sheds away and how their new experiences have made them a better person. When Mortensen has his humorous scenes, they are always complementary to his character. Whether it is physical humor like casually eating an entire pizza as one slice or that dry, sarcastic humor that you can only find from a lifelong New Yorker, at no point did these scenes distract from the overall theme of the film. Ali on the other hand, shows us the contrast of how he was raised to be the best he could be, but suffers due to the things he cannot control. Naturally as he goes further into the South, he faces the reality that it does not matter how good his piano-playing is, certain people will always hate him for the color of his skin or his sexual orientation. This leads to a very interesting conversation towards the end of the film about the relationship between race and gatekeeping. At one point, Tony criticizes Dr. Shirley for never eating fried chicken and for playing classical music for rich white people as he should be doing something that is more fitting of his race. Dr. Shirley then expresses his displeasure with this sentiment as he asks Tony if he is not black enough to be accepted, and not white enough to be accepted, then what is he? This conversation holds a significant amount of power for the rest of the film and makes you think about the stereotypes that continue to exist in our society today. People of one background are expected to act a certain way and like certain things, but that takes away from individuality. What we should be doing is accepting people for who they are and not by the predisposed thoughts we have for people we know little about. Mortensen and Ali demonstrate this idea perfectly and help us relate to Green Book in a way that very few movies can.
Overall, Green Book is easily one of the most surprisingly enjoyable movies of the year. At its very core, there are so many themes and styles that should instinctively conflict with one another, but much like the plot of this film, these different backgrounds come together to make something fantastic. It has to be incredibly difficult to find a movie about race relations that everyone can sit down and enjoy that is accompanied by amazing performances, but it looks like Green Book has mastered that middle ground.
Overall Score: 10/10