Every awards season will see a movie like this in the mix for the big prize. Green Book ticks all the usual boxes for social consciousness and racial oppression. The movie goes through the usual archetypal tropes and emotional beats, landing up in a place of social inclusivity and familial understanding. We typically get to see the narrative arc through the point of view of a white man. It’s the usual odd-couple movie where they start off as polar opposites, but by the end of the movie you know they will become true friends. It’s the air of familiarity that prevails and we have all seen hundreds of version of this particular narrative. But Green Book just worked marvelously and it put me in a spot of sublime bliss. It may be familiar, but the chemistry between the two superb leads is what sells a lesson we all need to learn again.
In 1962, Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a tough bouncer, is looking for work with his nightclub is closed for renovations. The most promising offer turns out to be the driver for the African-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) for a concert tour into the Deep South states. Although hardly enthused at working for a black man, Tony accepts the job and they begin their trek armed with The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for safe travel through America’s racial segregation. Together, the snobbishly erudite pianist and the crudely practical bouncer can barely get along with their clashing attitudes to life and ideals. However, as the disparate pair witness and endure America’s appalling injustices on the road, they find a newfound respect for each other’s talents and heart to face them together. In doing so, they would nurture a friendship and understanding that would change both their lives.
The film just garnered 5 Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Film Editing. For this reviewer, it is well deserving of the nominations.
Writer-director Peter Farrelly’s work with his brother defined comedy that is distinctive theirs. It’s crude and fart comedy, but it is comedy that stems from a core of sweetness and life-affirmation, evident in movies like There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Dumb and Dumber (1994). So it’s not surprising that Farrelly knows how to reel in the boorish humour and goes for the heartstrings. Mahershala Ali even referred to him as “a first-time filmmaker with 25 years of experience”.
Green Book is old-fashioned classic storytelling from Hollywood that we don’t see often. Everything glides on a veneer of zip and gloss, it hits all the emotional bumps with aplomb, occasionally dipping just underneath the surface to show social ugliness. It doesn’t probe very deep and the likeability of the odd-couple shines like a beacon. Some may consider that its weakness for not having deep shades of grey, but for this reviewer it was its strength in conviction for staying its course on becoming a journey of two opposites coming together.
Tony Lip begins his arc as a casual racist, but as the journey takes him further south of the Mason-Dixon line his core belief is shaken. Don Shirley is a collection of eccentricities and ethical beliefs, but he gets to understand cruelly that genius is a title that can resemble a prison. It is their onscreen chemistry that forms the lifeline of the movie. Their spot-on banter and pathos with each other is spirited.
There’s a scene in the second act that had no meaningful dialogue but yet carried much potency. Their turquoise coloured 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVilles has succumbed to heating problems and stops at the side of a plantation where black slaves are harvesting crops. Shirley and the nameless African Americans lock eyes and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the torrent of thoughts in both parties’ minds, the past sees the future and the future sees the past. The only minus for Green Book is that it didn’t have enough nuanced scenes like this.
Green Book is a crowd-pleaser, a feel-gooder and it wears its heart on its sleeve. You can probably see how their arcs will transpire, know all the turns before the narrative’s manoeuvre and see how everything will be jackknifed into a final cliché, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining to watch. I hardly felt the 2h 10min runtime and when it hit the poignant ending which is truly earned, I dare you to not feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Rating: 4 / 5
Written by Daniel Chiam.