Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Written by: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimeter Marinov, Mike Hatton, Iqbal Theba
Released: January 24, 2019
Grade: B+

Green Book

62-year-old director Peter Farrelly has made some wonderful comedies over the past three decades including Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary and Shallow Hal.  It’s hard to believe that it’s taken more than 25 years for Farrelly to make his first drama.  It wasn’t for lack of trying!

Studios showed no early interest in his script for Green Book, which he co-wrote with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, but that changed when he was able to convince Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) to come on board.  The end result speaks for itself.  The film won the lucrative Audience Award at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival and is tipped to feature prominently when the Academy Award nominations are announced.

It’s easy to see why comparisons are being made with another Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy.  Released back in 1989, it was the tale of an old lady (Jessica Tandy) who has her eyes opened to racism in the United States thanks to her loyal African American driver (Morgan Freeman).  They were as different as chalk and cheese but the film culminated with Tandy grabbing Freeman’s hand and saying the now famous line – “you’re my best friend”.

Set in 1962, Green Book reverses the races in that scenario.  Don Shirley (Ali), referred to as “Doc”, is a renowned black pianist based at Carnegie Hall.  In doing his small part for the civil rights movement, he has agreed to perform at a number of venues across America to showcase his talents in front of white audiences.  It’s an 8-week tour that begins in Pennsylvania and culminates in more “conservative” states such as Mississippi and Alabama.

Doc realises that his presence in the Deep South is likely to attract attention from white supremacists and so he has employed Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen), an expert in night club “public relations”, to be both his driver and security guard.  They’re both from New York City but that’s where the similarities end.  Tony isn’t particularly enamoured with the job and the idea of working for a “coloured” but he’s in a tough spot financially and needs the cash to help support his wife (Cardellini) and two children.

There are a few small surprises but for the most part, Green Book plays out as you might expect.  There’s early tension between the characters but a bond quickly develops between them.  So, did this feel-good story actually take place?  You’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask.  Tony’s son co-wrote the screenplay and based it on stories and audio tapes provided by his late father.  On the flip side, Doc’s 82-year-old brother has called it “a symphony of lies” and was disappointed that he and his family were not consulted during the filmmaking process.

I can’t attest to its factual accuracy but Green Book is still a warm-hearted crowd pleaser that achieves its mission thanks to the two stellar performances from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.  The interaction between the pair is the clear highlight.  Power games are afoot in the first half of the movie as each asserts their authority.  The calm, articulate Doc lays down clear ground rules (no smoking the car, hands on the wheel at all times) but the chatty, food-loving, chain-smoking Tony is quick to test those boundaries to see how far they can be pushed.

The film becomes more dramatic and poignant in the second half as they come face-to-face with the inherent “it’s just the way we do things down here” racism that existed, and still exists, in parts of America.  The situations become increasingly troublesome and as details emerge about Doc’s past, he becomes a more interesting, empathetic character.  The narrative is a little too skewed towards Tony’s good deeds (and I know some have been critical of this) but I’d argue that we still get to see Doc make his mark on the world and break down barriers (which was always his intention).

Nothing in Green Book is particularly new or revealing but it’s still a well told story.