Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Green Book” (2018)

Set during the early sixties, Peter Farrelly’s Oscar-nominated film revolves around Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a brash and unrefined family man and club bouncer who is recruited to be the driver/valet for professional musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali); as the two of them tour around several venues in the deep south, faced with segregation, injustice and the racism of passersby, policemen and event organisers, the two men slowly develop a close friendship, bringing out the best in each other and having each other’s backs as they embark on their tumultuous road trip.

In this awards season, though it may simply be my imagination, Green Book appears to be facing the scorn of several online movie critics, many placing it at the tail end of this year’s Best Picture nominees and focusing on the filmmakers’ controversial comments that have apparently surfaced from behind the scenes. Again, I could, in fact, be completely misinformed about the film’s overall reception thus far.

But having now seen it, I’ll throw in my two cents by saying that Green Book is a very enjoyable film – a perfectly paced road movie, set during a historically important time, with two excellent performances at the forefront.

I may be taking a simplistic approach to viewing this film, but Green Book works best as a classic odd couple road movie; we have the loud, uncouth and occasionally ignorant one with a heart who could really use the Eliza Doolittle treatment, and the uptight, well mannered character who looks down on the former’s brash behaviour and though there’s tension, perhaps dislike, between them at first, arguments ensuing as they face a difficult journey, they eventually make each other better people and by the end, they’re lifetime friends – the classic Steve Martin/John Candy dynamic. It’s in the character interactions where the film shines brightest and this is achieved through the performances of the leading actors and also, the dialogue which is refreshingly very funny and full of heart and good intention; highlights include Tony’s letters to his family, which include the wonderful reactions from his friends and relations back home (“I want a letter!”) and of course the many interactions that occur when they’re on the road, including the popular scene involving the big bucket of chicken.

When dealing with the heavier parts of the story, the scenes that explore the unfair way that Dr. Shirley is treated and all the issues of race and prejudice that occur, Green Book doesn’t exactly break new ground because the scenes that demonstrate the segregation and discrimination of the time are telling us things we already know and the film doesn’t pack enough of a punch to have any lasting impact in that regard. But the thing is that themes of racism and injustice do exist in the film but they aren’t forced down our throats and it’s never preachy or like one big lecture; other films this award season have made it their mission to get us angry about these things, in far more obvious ways, but Green Book‘s approach to the subject matter is more “accessible” and forms a large part of the film without being too obvious or manipulative about it.

Looking at the two characters/actors who make the movie, Viggo Mortensen is wonderful in his role of Tony Lip; he’s a loud, outspoken, talkative and very expressive family man with the gift of the gab who unknowingly says some insensitive things sometimes, demonstrates some innocent gaps in his knowledge and has one hell of a healthy appetite (anyone who eats a whole pizza is alright by me!); he starts off being unsure of Dr. Shirley but as Tony witnesses his performances, he develops a deep admiration for the musician (calling him a genius) and as the film goes on, he becomes fiercely protective of his new friend. Mortensen uses subtle facial expressions and hand gestures brilliantly to enhance the comedy and he delivers the comedic lines with gusto and panache; it’s a thoroughly entertaining and well rounded performance from the Oscar nominated actor and he’s well worth the price of admission!

Alongside, Mahershala Ali is incredibly dignified and regal as the prestigious musician; at the start, he’s overwhelmingly uptight, aloof and solitary, addressing Tony from a throne, and it’s satisfying to watch him get exasperated at Tony’s testing behaviour and then eventually learning to loosen up and have fun with his piano playing. He confidently demonstrates Don’s growing appreciation for Tony, at one point being afraid that Tony will abandon him, and and there are many instances where he visibly struggles to maintain his composure when faced with the horrible treatment from the people around him. It’s a deep and meaningful performance from Ali, giving us a character who has to face the idea of being so out of touch from his own people, and he and Mortensen play off each other well, Ali playing “the straight man” of the duo perfectly.

Clearly moving on from the days of directing notoriously lowbrow comedies, Peter Farrelly directs remarkably well because the film’s pacing is absolutely perfect and the narrative flows so smoothly, also managing to balance both drama and comedy splendidly. Visually, the film is very nice to look at and the music used is very satisfying – the original score works well and all the classical music and soul tracks are a feast for the ears.

An enjoyable, funny and entertaining road movie with plenty of heart, two excellent central performances, and a script with an ideal blend of comedy and drama.

★ ★ ★ ★

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