“…it’s undeniable charm and poignant commentary propel it to greatness.”
Listen, I’m aware that I’m supposed to be talking about Green Book here, but honestly I’m still reeling. Did you know that Green Book was directed by Peter Farrelly? Like Peter Farrelly of “The Farrelly Brothers” Peter Farrelly. The same guy that directed Dumb and Dumber To. The same guy that saw what he had created with Movie 43 and went “Yeah, that’s good”. Peter fucking Farrelly. I still can’t believe it.
I don’t believe in judging books by their covers but when that cover has been known to direct some of the most bottom-of-the-barrel comedy, especially in recent years, it’s hard to look past that. I completely understand why Farrelly’s name is nowhere near this movie. Not once in the trailer is it stated that this movie comes from “the genius behind Me, Myself & Irene” or even give you a name to play word association with. This was a brilliant move in my mind because had I known that Peter Farrelly was anywhere near the production of this film I wouldn’t have set foot in the theatre.
Luckily I did go to the theatre to see Green Book, and you know what? I would do it again. As a matter of fact, I want to do it again. What we got from Green Book is nothing like any other Farrelly movie ever released. It is smart, touching, beautiful, and most importantly funny. I don’t know if this marks a turning-point in Peter Farrelly’s career, but now I wonder where this guy has been all of these years.
In hindsight I can see some Farrelly influence in Green Book. First of all it’s a road trip movie. Everyone knows that, regardless of their later films, the Farrelly’s know how to compose a good road trip film. And the comedy is also something I noticed throughout Green Book. This was the film’s most compelling feature in my eyes because it made monumental issues of race in America palatable. It took these issues down at the knees which made them a lot more manageable for the audience. And a lot of that comes from Viggo Mortensen’s performance.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony, the quintessential Italian-American living in New York in the 60’s. He’s tough, he’s rough, and he doesn’t hesitate to say what’s on his mind at any given time. Tony is where we get most of Green Book’s comedy. Mortensen effortlessly plays Tony as a bumbling idiot with a heart of gold. He knows what is valuable to him and anything else is cast-aside. But Tony is also played as a product of circumstance. Of course one of Green Book’s central themes is race relations in America, so Tony is played as a character that holds no personal prejudice towards people of a different race but due to his upbringing treats them differently. This is instrumental in the redemption arc of Tony.
We never hate Tony, despite a lot of his actions being terribly obtuse and prejudiced. The way he is portrayed, as well as the way he is written, does a good job of conveying to the audience that this is almost second nature to Tony; but it also shows that he is not adverse to change. This allows for the heartfelt moments to work, as well as the jokes to land. And almost all of this is thanks to Mortensen’s complex portrayal of this character that seems very two-dimensional from the outside.
But Mortensen doesn’t deserve all of the praise in Green Book because for most of the film he is going toe-to-toe with Mahershala Ali. Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a pianist whose style borders on classical and jazz-based and who is the catalyst for the plot. As Don Shirley, Ali finds comfort in the uncomfortable. Don is never at ease, always racking his brain for one reason or another. I say “one reason or another”, but really it’s just the one reason. Don’s major conflict in the film is the juxtaposition he feels when performing versus when he is not.
This constant struggle plagues Don as he traverses the American deep-south, performing to sold-out concert halls but still being taken to jail for the colour of his skin. This knowledge that these events are going to happen, but not knowing why they happen, is really the heart of Don’s character. We see so much of this come through in Ali’s performance, especially when literally performing in front of a crowd. These scenes where Don Shirley aggressively smashes the keys of a piano to produce heartfelt, emotionally-driven music is where these feelings are able to bubble to the surface. We are constantly party to these conflicting thoughts, feeling hopeless but still driven to incite the change he wants to see in the world; all of this and he is still able to fill the roll of a tremendous foil for Mortensen’s Tony.
These two opposing forces are what create the heart of Green Book. We are introduced to these two characters, each one brilliantly portrayed by their respective actors, but polar opposites of one another. These characters work on each other throughout the film; they use comedy to find common ground. Every interaction they share brings them closer together until finally they are equals. No viewpoints are entirely shared, but they are at least understood. They are both party to moments of heartache as well as moments of comedy; each one acting as an equalizer on some form.
Green Book truly is a group effort. The performances given by the two leads take a story that is similar to those told a thousand times before and inject it with new perspectives and life. The writing takes these moments and makes sure they are conquerable for the audience. And the direction is— well it’s impressive to say the least, especially considering who was behind the camera. Green Book is not a movie I thought I would like this much, but it’s undeniable charm and poignant commentary propel it to greatness.
I give Green Book an A