Review: GREEN BOOK is a "emotional; important" comedy-drama
“The world's full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.”
Peter Farrelly's GREEN BOOK opened in late 2018 and, in early 2019, received five Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Achievement in Film Editing. I saw it this past weekend at the Cowley Cinema 8 in Ark City, where it is is currently playing before the 91st Annual Academy Awards are held on February 24.
GREEN BOOK is an emotion-stirring biographical “dramedy” that follows a working class Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who is hired to be a driver for African-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) escorting him through the racially troubled and deeply segregated deep south on a concert tour in late 1962. On their road trip, the two individuals, prejudiced and jaded in their own ways, become unlikely friends and kindle a relationship that would go on to change both of their lives.
The film, rated PG-13, is not an “Oscar-bait” picture by any means. A lot of the complaints levied against it seem to be a misunderstanding in regards to the film's fairly innocent attempt at handling racial politics in favor of telling a story about friendship. If you go in expecting GREEN BOOK to be a film about racism, your expectations will not be met. Instead, GREEN BOOK is a story that happens with racial politics and identity as merely a backdrop to nurture a more universal message which is, in essence, what makes us all different is the very thing that brings us together.
Tony Lip, played lovingly by a sincere Viggo Mortensen, is casually prejudiced against blacks as is evident at the start of the film when he wants to throw away two glass cups used by black repairmen in his home who are assisting his wife. Likewise, Don Shirley seems almost condescending and uppity in the face of Tony's hard-knocks lifestyle, crass way of speaking, poor vernacular, and generally uneducated demeanor in comparison to Shirley's own rather sophisticated upbringing.
The film allows the audience to be sucked into this relationship between the two because both are incredibly sympathetic and human characters that can be easily projected onto. Shirley's sympathy comes from his own sense of disconnect from any one group. He's a black man who doesn't know contemporary black music. He's snobbish and uppity, much like the general concept of white racist gentlemen of the time, which means he's an outcast from his own people and, obviously an outcast from whites. He tearfully sums this up in one of the film's most outstanding moments when he screams “If I ain't black enough, if I ain't white enough, if I ain't man enough then tell me, Tony, what am I?”
Likewise, Tony Lip is a man struggling to make enough money for his family and is initially insulted by Shirley's attacks on his intelligence and way of life, like when he chides Tony for commenting that their meal at a diner was “too salty” to which Shirley declares Tony “should be a food critic” but the insult initially goes over his head. We, of course, don't truly believe Tony has shed all his distrusts of African-Americans and it all seems like this is just a job for him, until they go further on their adventure and you see the genuine human understanding come out.
One pivotal scene takes place with the two passing through a “sundown town”, much like our own Blackwell was in the day, where they are stopped by an imposing white policeman and his innocent partner. The racist cop pulls Tony out in the pouring rain and asks why Tony is driving Don Shirley not the other way around. Tony informs him that Don is his boss, which the cop remarks that it makes sense seeing as Tony is Italian and, thus, “half a n---- yourself”. Tony attacks the man for the comment and they both end up in jail for the night.
It's at this moment where Shirley speaks for the audience's doubts. Tony defends that he attacked the cop for how he treated Don, but Don says that it wasn't his usage of the racial slur around Don, rather his direction of the slur at Tony. He's right, of course. But this heavily impacts Tony in a beautiful pay off moment of redemption towards the end of the film. Tony understands people are different and he obviously has a childlike concept of racial disparity, but not in a way that seems malicious, rather in a way that seems like an objective glimpse into how people were raised as products of their time, environment, and parents.
Tony ends up depending on Don just as Don depends on Tony, and this ends up extending far beyond the notion and concept of race. The film also subverts the audience's own contemporary belief of the “racist cop” archetype that has since been prevalent in the era of thin blue lines and kneeling for anthems. On the way back to New York City, Tony and Don are once again lit up by a patrol car and the scene is intentionally framed to mirror the racist police incident from earlier, but the payoff is extremely different and emotionally stirring.
The film is hilarious and also poignant, it will leave your heart warm and your mind at ease. I can't think of a way to describe this movie other than the perfect “rainy day comfort film” because that's what it is. It's a comfort film. There's no sex, violence, swearing, or sever language. There's only a great message and two utterly applause worthy performances. The film ends with a small slide-show with the real life Tony and Don, noting that they “remained close friends until they died within a month of each-other in 2013” and I won't lie, I had to hurry out of the theater with misty eyes.
GREEN BOOK will leave you satisfied emotionally, with laugh lines and tears to remember it by.
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