Director: Peter Farrelly
Screenwriters: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly
Dimiter D. Marinov
Runtime: 130 mins.
Australian release date: 24 January 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 10 January 2019.
Green Book seems like an odd choice for director/co-writer Peter Farrelly because, together with his brother Bobby, he’s known for specialising in politically incorrect comedies like There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself And Irene, Shallow Hal, Movie 43 and the Dumb And Dumber duo of movies. His new film, on the other hand, is “inspired by a true story” according to an opening credit and, while it does have comic moments, it’s a far cry from those earlier titles. Green Book is based on letters and interviews shared by the family of one of the protagonists, Tony Vallelonga, aka ‘Tony Lip’. His son (and co-writer of the film), Nick, explains that, “As I grew up, I wanted to be a filmmaker and tell stories, and this was a big story that my father told me. It was part of the family lore, but I also knew it was an important story about two very different people coming together and changing each other’s lives and changing how they look at other people. It’s an uplifting story that’s as important and powerful today as it ever was.”
It’s 1962 and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American classical and jazz pianist who lives in a palatial apartment above Carnegie Hall, is about to embark on an eight-week tour of the Jim Crow South and is interviewing drivers to take on the job of chauffeur/minder. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at a nightclub who’s about to become unemployed because the club is closing for renovations, is recommended for the position and is asked to meet the performer. Initially the pair don’t hit it off because they’re like chalk and cheese - Shirley is a worldly aesthete, unmarried and used to Manhattan’s high-life, while Lip/Vallelonga lives in the Italian part of the Bronx with his wife and kids, is casually racist, poorly educated and very much a low-life. However, once they agree on terms, the pair set off with a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a journal that listed the accommodation and restaurants open to Black guests in the ‘apartheid’ South, where segregation laws varied between counties and states. It’s hard to believe today, but there were even so-called ‘Sundown Towns’ which forbade Black Americans from being out after dark! In their enforced proximity in the car, Don and Tony converse, learning from and about each other, and they are also forced together due to the humiliations and indignities they encounter on the journey. Thus, a friendship of sorts is formed between the two men.
Green Book has been criticised by both Blacks and Whites (in both cases for much the same reason - that each man is seen to be ‘saving’ the other) and its portrayal of a close friendship between Vallelonga and Shirley has been denied by the pianist’s family in interviews. However, as is often the case in Hollywood, a certain amount of poetic license makes for a darn good yarn and, true or not (with respect to the perceived biographical anomalies), it’s an inspiring story about the friendship and respect that can be gained when people spend time together, overcoming outwardly insurmountable differences and embracing their common humanity.
Both Ali and Mortensen are superb in their roles and, fittingly, their performances have been acknowledged by Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar nominations, Ali as Best Supporting Actor and Mortensen as Best Actor. In fact, Mahershala has already picked up one of those gongs, the Globe, and it’s safe to say there will be more. Unfortunately for Viggo, he’s up against Christian Bale for Vice, so he may not be so honoured. Linda Cardellini is also excellent as Dolores, Tony’s adoring wife. Script-wise, plaudits have been bestowed on writers Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly by all three of the above film institutions too, and they won the Globe for Best Screenplay. Rounding off the big awards, the producers of Green Book won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, and BAFTA and Oscar noms have been earned for Best Film. The DoP, Sean Porter (not nominated), used a tobacco-filter lens in most of the scenes to give the film a warm, burnished tone across a palette that ranged from cool monochromatics to spring-hued pastels, so the film looks great. As Tony writes in one of his letters to Dolores, “it’s really a beautiful country, just like out of a fairy-tale book. I never really knew how beautiful nature is until now.” And, needless to say, it has a great soundtrack. In fact, every aspect of the film has a beautiful tone; it’s a delight. See it before it picks up any more awards or you might just have to join a queue.