Director: Peter Farrelly
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Running time: 130 minutes
1960’s America. A popular jazz trio spearheaded by Dr Don Shirley (Ali) embarks on a tour of the Deep South. Trouble on the road is likely, so not only do they need a driver, but someone who can efficiently diffuse any situation. Cue Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen): a white bouncer from New York, with some deeply disconcerting prejudices of his own. What follows is a tale of unlikely friendship.
It might seem strange to hear that a film about a well-known African-American musician and his American-Italian muscle-turned-chauffeur facing the racist injustices of the deep south in the 1960’s might just be the festive film of the decade.
Ok, so it’s not quite the archetypal mulled wine and mince pie fuelled feature, but Peter Farrelly – a name synonymous with quirky romantic comedies and spunky hair gel – has competently cooked up a film with all the ingredients of a December feel-good, complete with all the thematic trimmings – from acceptance to changing perspectives – that build towards a climax set on Christmas Eve.
Co-written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga – formulated largely from the latter’s interviews with his father and the letters he wrote his mother – Green Book tells the true story of celebrated black jazz pianist and his unlikely bond with a white night-club bouncer who he employs as his chauffeur during his 8-week tour of America’s Deep South.
But, of course, it is the 1960’s and racial tensions are rife (the film’s title refers to a guide used by black travellers to find safe lodging). To complicate matters further, Vallelonga himself – born and bred in The Bronx – holds some rather unjustly prejudices towards black people. So, when Shirley calls upon “Tony Lip” (as he is known favourably around town), it seems like a recipe for disaster. Rather, what begins as a Kerouac-esque road movie eventually transpires into something altogether more vital: a life-affirming, if not slightly by-the-numbers journey towards tolerance, knowledge, identity and the barrier-breaking, transcending power of friendship over race, class, and sexuality.
If you were to only watch the first half of Green Book, however, you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking you’d inadvertently walked into a big-screen adaptation of Adam Richman’s Man v Food. As we enter the story via the life of Mortensen’s Vallelonga, we quickly learn of his relationship with food. From seeing off 26 hot dogs (with all the toppings) in an hour, to Kentucky Fried Chicken fresh outta Kentucky, packing it away as often as possible comes as natural to Tony Lip as Shirley’s tinkling of the ivories. Through his relationship with various grease-lathered culinary delights, Farrelly cleverly serves up valuable insight into his character. He’s a man who takes things as they are, rolls with the punches, lives by binaries – mainly whether he’s hungry or not – and rarely complicates things.
It’s a perfectly stark contrast to Ali’s suave and articulate pianist – a wonderfully gifted musician with doctorates in Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts. But Shirley is a damaged soul: turning to the bottle in an attempt to heal the ever-resurfacing wounds of loneliness and the search for identity.
Their motives too appear, at least at first, to be polar opposite. Vallelonga seems exclusively money-driven, getting behind the wheel solely to make a quick buck, while Shirley is on a one-man mission to face head-on the deep-rooted racism permeating throughout America’s southern states.
And if we learn much about Vallelonga via the capacity of his stomach, Farrelly neatly offers subtle characterisation of Shirley through his fingers. As he exposes himself to the harsh realities of not only being black in 1960’s America, but being wealthy, educated and black, Shirley’s frustrations are subtly expressed through his increasingly loud and frantic piano performances, and his longing for genuine companionship exorcised through the heartfelt words he dictates to Vallelonga in the letters he writes to his wife.
Of course, the black/white central duo is nothing novel, but Farrelly handles it with suitable delicacy – and some neatly-pitched humour – so that when the more obviously emotional beat drops, it feels that bit more impactful. The ever-versatile Mortensen has the showier role of the two, but it is Ali’s nuanced elegance that gives Green Book its fine tuning. There are times when Farrelly perhaps plays it a little too safe, shying away from some more intriguing aspects of Shirley’s character; but this a sound, charming coming-of-middle-age tale about the coming together of two men who could’ve just as easily walked off the set of two entirely different films.
Given its title, Green Book is, quite aptly, a tale about the struggles of finding one’s place in the world. Fitting then that Green Book will likely find itself nestling snuggly in one or two of those Academy Awards categories later this year.