“Green Book” has been touted as a front runner for awards season and as one of the best movies of 2018. Many have compared it (favorably) to the Best Picture winning 1989 classic “Driving Miss Daisy”, although in the case of “Green Book” it’s a real-life story and the roles of the races are reversed with a white man chauffeuring a black man. With so much buzz surrounding it and some amazing names in the cast I had to give it a watch to see for myself if “Green Book” was really up to snuff especially in a year where race relations seems to have been a hot topic in the world of film. That said is this movie worth all of the praise it’s been receiving or is “Green Book” and epic miss? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Green Book”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Green Book” is based on the real life friendship of African-American black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and white Italian-American bouncer Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson). After the club he works at is temporarily closed for renovations Tony is hired by Don to be his driver and bodyguard. Don proves to be quite the eccentric professional, treating and carrying himself like royalty with an ever-present respect for sophistication, proper attire and diction. Tony on the other hand is the exact opposite. Somewhat of a slob, Tony is a carefree and foulmouthed Italian who has reservations towards African-Americans but takes the job for the money. As the two embark on a tour of the deep south where Don entertains clubs of rich white folks while facing racial exclusion this mismatched couple begins to bond and they find an understanding in one another that challenges not only the racial divide, but their own superiority complexes as well. The name of the film is derived from the real-life book used by blacks in the 60s and used by Tony in the film to determine where African-Americans were allowed or safe to stay during road trips.
“Green Book” is one of many films in 2018 to focus on white and black race relations in the United States, but surprisingly one of the few to do so from a historical perspective rather than the modern day. To that end this movie is probably the easiest to tolerate in terms of its message about social injustices against minorities. That’s not to say that these films are unbearable. Many movies about race relations have actually received perfect scores from me in 2018. However I can understand where one might be tired of such themes by now, but with “Green Book” the racism is part of the story and culture of the time making the extreme nature of some of the challenges the main duo face feel more integral to the narrative and much less pretentious even to viewers who may want to avoid these themes by now. It also doesn’t take up the entire film. The racial subtext is more of a side story, the B-conflict if you will, for Don and Tony although it does play a big part in the final act and how these two men grow to understand each other as people and not just the employee and employer. “Green Book” strikes a nice balance between making a point about race relations without forcing the terrors of racism down our throats.
What this film is really about though is the relationship between two men from different worlds who find common ground. White Italian Tony is a slob who can’t stop talking and swears like a sailor. Don Shirley is a proper gentleman who holds himself higher than most of society always embracing lavish suits and speaking in proper English, even avoiding eating with his hand when he can help it. Throughout the film we see these men from two very different backgrounds embrace each other and learn from each other with ample time given to developing both men without either taking the full spotlight. Their flaws are fleshed out as well as the things that make them much better men than either of them probably realized when they first met. Tony finds Don’s music to be lovely and unique but also finds his pretentious lifestyle to be hypocritical as Don talks about racism and how his people are treated as lower lifeforms. On the other hand, Don teaches Tony the magic of the English language and how not every book can be judged by its cover, especially in terms of skin color. Excellent writing and an entertaining script keep the conversations and bonding experience of these two men lighthearted while never ignoring the emotional core of their interactions. It’s a fascinating and quite honestly entertaining movie experience with so much going on that there’s always something to take away from it.
It doesn’t hurt that the two male leads are just amazing in this film. Most of “Green Book” is focused squarely on Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip. Both actors own every bit of their characters allowing them to clash while also convincingly warming up to each other over the course of the film. Ali, who won an Oscar for his performance in “Moonlight”, deserves at least another nomination for his pitch perfect performance as Don with so many different aspects of the enigmatic pianist explored through different segments of the film. I felt like I learned so much about a man who many knew so little about simply by watching the nuances of Ali’s performance unfold. Viggo Mortenson also deserves some Oscar cred with his own role as Tony Lip. Viggo gained a lot of weight, around 50 pounds in fact, and literally transformed into Tony to get the character right. He embraces an undeniably charming personality that actually steals a lot of scenes from Ali over the course of the movie. Mortenson for me was the best part of a very well-acted film as he gets many of the more powerful revelations and emotional moments put on his shoulders that he handles incredibly well.
I was surprised by how entertaining “Green Book” was. It’s a dramedy but is actually more comedy than drama using the mismatched leads and a fun script to keep you laughing even if just a giggle at a time throughout the film. Director Peter Farrelly, who wrote the screenplay with Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, layers this film with great moments of levity to break up the tension and memorable one liners and interactions between the characters that kept me completely hooked. It felt natural, it felt real, it felt sincere and most of all it was fun without sacrificing the more significant social messages the story had to tell. I loved watching “Green Book” and embracing its charm, humor and even it’s emotional weight, sometimes all at the same time. It’s been a while since a film has offered me so much as a viewer and left me feeling this perfectly satisfied without embracing previously established fanfare to get the job done.
As with another film I reviewed this week “Beautiful Boy” I feel like “Green Book’s” heavy focus on the two male leads leaves little development or screen time for everyone else. The only character that really gets enough screen time to stand out in any way with the leads is Tony’s wife Dolores played by Linda Cardellini. Even then despite Cardellini’s awesome take on the character Dolores feel’s like more of a means to an end for Tony who wants to get back home to his family. She’s loving a supportive to be sure and a memorable character in her own right, but I feel like we could have been given a little more of her story than her reading love letters. I also thought the other two members of the Don Shirley Trio were fun but they don’t get very much development and their lines and place in the story feel like one of the few forced elements to drive home the racial subtext of the film. I mean yes, this story is all about the bonding experience between Don Shirley and Tony Lip but if I could ask for anything more from “Green Book” it’s maybe a little more understanding of the other people that played a role in these two men’s lives.
My only other negative with “Green Book” that I can point out from just a single viewing is that it is a bit long. At a little over two hours in length there is some fat that could have been trimmed from the film to make it a more viewer friendly experience to the masses. There were some scenes and elongated shots that could have been shortened or removed for time especially in terms of driving home the racial bias of the south. As I said this film doesn’t shove its race-themed message down the viewers’ throats, but it still does have a lot of scenes directly focusing on racism and we really don’t need to see all of it to understanding the role discrimination plays in this story.
Well, it might not be an inspired or “against-the-grain” opinion but “Green Book” definitely is one of the year’s best films. I was fully invested the whole time, and not once did I feel like this movie was pretentious or preachy. It’s actually quite enjoyable. Yeah there’s some fat that could have been trimmed and I would have liked to learn more about the secondary characters, but it’s hard to overlook the tremendous performances by Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali in the lead roles and the chemistry and charm they bring to this journey of friendship and bonding between two men from different worlds. “Green Book” was a whole lot of fun for me and I’d watch it again in a heartbeat. I think it’s well written, entertaining, and never takes itself too seriously while also making sure its emotional messages aren’t lost in the shuffle. If you haven’t experience it yet then take it from me, the hype is real. See it for yourself. It’s worth the time and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.