Directed by Peter Farrelly
It’s been a long time since there’s been an On-the-Road/Buddy picture as satisfying as “Green Book”. It may seem like a populist flick, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is fluff. Within its alternating humorous and overtly serious shell there exists a gooey filling of several themes:
- The drawing of racial lines (both geographically, and culturally) in the America of the fifties – both north and south of the Mason-Dixon
- The constant fear of being discovered as gay in that America
- The exponential wall of fear that surrounds those who are both gay and African-American
- The nature of music as an art form vs. an economic driver – and the power of the record publishing machine
- And, finally, the machinations of change…how one evolves and becomes more empathetic to the other when one is forced to live in close proximity to that other for long periods of time
While that may seem like a lot (and those of you who have seen it already may reasonably claim I’m overstating the film’s messages), luckily it also has some terrific dialogue, well-wrtten scene-work and three phenomenal performances. All of THESE attributes mean that even if you aren’t interested in the ways the film tackles issues, you’ll still have a really good time.
Now, I can’t pretend there isn’t more than a little controversy over the film’s accuracy surrounding specific timelines or personality traits of the real-life people portrayed in the film. However, if we can, in the name of artistic license, and for this discussion only, put that aside, this is a very illuminating script. Yes, in its need to keep the commercial aspects of the film’s story moving, it may give medium-shrift to the themes mentioned above (and includes more than a couple blatant missteps in terms of painting this world with a semblance of subtlety). However, it is mostly successful in making you smile the smile that comes from watching people form a bond of love in spite of the forces working against that eventuality. And, while I’m sure there are other actors who could have tackled this journey successfully, you’d be hard pressed to find a better duo to than Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali.
While the awards world has Ali as a supporting performer, he is, in reality, not supporting at all. In fact, the guts, heart, and heartbreak of this film all falls on the shoulders of Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley. He is tremendous. Keeping his pressurized anger, frustration and fear tightly enclosed in an elegant bottle, he manages to let those elements slowly leak out…hissing almost silently…until the inevitable explosion at the end of the film’s second act. This is one helluva balancing act, and one Ali does with ease, grace, and with none of the acting tics that have marked his previous work. This is a nuanced, deep and exceptional performance.
Likewise, Mortenson is magnetic. Of course, the fear is he will be a mob caricature throughout, after all, he plays a man whose entire world consists of the ten blocks surrounding his Brooklyn home. Also, his evolution is more blatant in terms of his reactions, since Tony the Lip, as a white man, is allowed to react in a way that Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley can’t conceive of. But we needn’t worry. Mortenson’s Tony possesses a bluster and bravado that are in his DNA, not in his thought processes or cognitive abilities. As a result, Mortenson does us the favor of showing that a person doesn’t have to change the way they behave to successfully see, and react to, the world in a new light. All of which is a REALLY long-winded way of saying he is, as he always is, terrific. Very few actors perform better with their eyes than Mortenson, even while speaking loudly and crassly.
Special mention to Linda Cardellini, whom during this awards’ season, the creators keep referring to as the “heart of the film”. While I disagree slightly with that assessment (I feel it’s Ali’s egg-shell walking that grounds the film), she is very successful at grounding the relationship between the two men; both as a plot device and as a very real presence on the road. Further, she manages to avoid the saccharin sweetness that can afflict others who have played such roles, In fact, I’m kind of surprised we haven’t seen a whiff of her name bandied about in the supporting awards.
It is directed by Peter Farrelly. Yes, one half of the “Something About Mary”, “Dumb and Dumber”, “Hall Pass” Farrelly’s. But while the movie will make you laugh out loud, it comes from a place of true relational humor, not shtick or gross-out buffoonery. He let’s the film breathe, allowing our leads’ interactions to each other and to their environment inform their emotions. And Sean Porter’s photography gives us the vivid expanse of the Deep South which, like a vast ocean with no land in sight, makes us feel the unique fear of drowning that encapsulates Don Shirley’s existence in those towns.
And the music is terrific. Even if the CGI necessary to make it appear that Ali is actually playing these very difficult passages is kinda creepy, it does allow one to sit back and both enjoy it as a casual listener, and see it for what it represents in the heart of Ali’s Don Shirley. Kris Bowers has orchestrated standards, and written new music that is spot on in this world. Without it, the movie has no underpinnings.
Look, this is not a film that is going to change the world overnight, any more than “Hidden Figures” did a couple years ago. BUT, they both signal the continuation of a trend to find stories that reflect our world, and the process of change, in a way that shows that we need not lose our cultural mannerisms to find a way to evolve, to better understand those around us, and to treat each other with empathy. I’d say for a Hollywood film from a Farrelly brother, that’s a pretty big ask…and a successful one, at that.
(ignore the simplistic nature of the film’s trailer…it’s a much more nuanced film than it portrays)
Written on January 28th, 2019