Green Book doesn’t look like it should work. A movie about racism in the 1960s arrives at another treacherous and volatile time in American history. There have been plenty of movies about the white character that solves racism. I am pleased to report that Green Book doesn’t really do that. It’s a movie that I wasn’t sure what to make of initially, but it won me over with two terrific performances, a warm-hearted nature, two well-matched performers and a very nice soundtrack.
‘Inspired by’ a true story, Green Book follows Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian bouncer at the Copacabana in the early 1960’s, who is suddenly out of a job due to an incident that it’s not clear if he actually caused. He applies to a job from Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a very famous musician, who is about to embark on a concert tour of the Deep South. Over the course of three months with only the two of them in a car, these two men who couldn’t be more different learn a lot about what it’s like to walk in the other’s shoes, and a lasting friendship emerges.
A recurring issue in not just this, but every Oscar season, are these movies that wear the ‘based on a true story’ label like a badge of honor when any viewer who is paying attention will realize they’re being told a story, and that’s that. In the few months since Green Book has screened on the festival circuit, issues have popped up regarding a number of historical inaccuracies in this film. Should that hinder the average viewer’s enjoyment in any way? No. This is a heartwarming, feel-good tonic of a movie that is exactly what this divisive world needs right now. It’s designed to make everyone feel good, and it ultimately does.
We spend almost all of our time with these two characters, and it’s nice to watch them bicker and joke back and forth, but also to watch each of them change and evolve. Tony is the kind of sleazy, casually racist, Italian ne’er-do-well who needs to learn a lot about the changing world around him. Don is refined, classy and kind of uptight. He lives above Carnegie Hall in an apartment that looks like a palace, and the first time we find these two characters together, we know what kind of movie this is going to be. This is going to be a road movie with two characters realizing they’re not that different after all. And if you’re along for that ride, it’s plenty of fun.
This is mostly due to how far Mortensen and Ali carry the film. Mortensen is an actor who truly disappears into every role he plays. Some actors will get points taken off for playing the same role consistently, or playing ‘versions of’ themselves. I truly have no idea what Viggo Mortensen is like as an off-screen presence, because he puts the same effort into every role. He’s sensational here. Mahershala Ali, also, is fantastic. He’s an actor who had worked for years but only really began to show up on everyone’s radar after he won an Oscar, and this is a great follow-up to his work in Moonlight. It’s hard to say who is giving the better performance because the chemistry the two have is what makes the film as good as it ultimately is.
Peter Farrelly, of the Farrelly brothers, directed and co-wrote the film alongside Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s real-life son. The film is apparently based on interviews with his father and Shirley, as well as letters his father wrote to his mother, which play a central role in the narrative. This is a departure from the dumb comedy that the Farrelly brothers are known for, and this film finds the humor and the pathos often difficult for a film like this to achieve.
In the end, I enjoyed Green Book a lot, in spite of itself. On paper, it looks like a played-out and slightly tone-deaf narrative about racial tension in America, but it’s self-aware in moments you don’t expect it to be. It’s a smooth, warm and charming crowd-pleaser. It can’t help but feel Oscar bait-y, but in the end, you don’t really mind. By the end, you’re attached to these two characters, and you care about their relationship. Even if it all is simply ‘inspired by’ a true story.