As the chaos of the 2018 awards season comes to an end next week, let us revisit one of the more polarizing and divisive films of last year: Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book.” A light-hearted biopic about the real-life friendship between pianist Donald Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) and club bouncer/occasional driver Frank Vallelonga, or his public moniker, “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen).
I should mention right away that just because the film is directed by one of the Farrelly brothers of “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and “Me, Myself and Irene” (2000) fame, the characterizations of the men in “Green Book” are not a complete joke. That’s not why some people are turned off by the film. But it is a lot like “Driving Ms. Daisy” (1989), the popular period piece where two very strong lead performances compete in a film that’s basically a fluff piece. There’s also the argument that Ali – who is now the front runner for Best Supporting Actor – is clearly a co-lead that’s currently a product of category fraud.
So, on to the plot of “Green Book.” Tony Lip is out of a job in 1962 New York and looking for easy work before Christmas, and Dr. Don Shirley is in need of a driver for a two-month long tour of the South. Despite their personal differences and Tony’s casual racial prejudice, the two come together for the sake of their careers. Don and Tony start to get along with each other while on the road for eight weeks, and Don even helps Tony write love letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) back home. Tony also gets firsthand knowledge of the racism Don regularly experiences for being black (such as being handed a green book filled with motel options when hotels are white only), and in turn, Don sees Tony mocked for being Italian-American.
The thing about “Green Book” is that there are some genuinely good scenes, particularly early on when Don and Tony are getting to know each other, and there was a lot of potential for this to be an ode to a talented but overlooked musician from the mid-20th century. Instead, the film feels much like a race-swapped, gender-swapped “Driving Ms. Daisy” or a much less depressing “Philadelphia” (1993). The acting is great and the friendship feels real and puts a smile on your face, but as the movie goes on, the portrayal gets a little fairytale-ish, with Tony quickly becoming the only “good” white guy in a sea of bigoted Southerners. This is a trope we’ve seen many times in classics, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967).
The difference is, though, that as overdrawn as that cliché has become on screen, the older movies still hold up because they care about the characters and story and are taking them seriously. And while “Green Book” does take Shirley and Lip seriously, and Ali and Mortensen have a ton of naturally flowing chemistry, you can easily tell that the film is co-written and co-produced by Frank’s son, Nick Vallelonga, just about the time the overwhelmingly sympathetic qualities of Tony take over in the middle of the second act. The biggest missed opportunity is the final scene, which should have been a nice, subtle send-off. We get the typical saccharine, sweeping encore that is common in family pieces or romcoms instead.
Green Book has been getting way too many Best Film and Best Screenplay awards this past six weeks – and is in no way better than say, “Roma” or “The Favourite.” But, like a lot of my fellow film critics, I’m still going to recommend it, primarily on how strong the performances are.