In just over a month’s time, Green Book may well be named Best Picture at the Oscars. That’s quite the achievement considering that, just six years ago, its director was one-third responsible for the lamentable Movie 43. On the other hand, the recruitment of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as either half of a road-tripping odd-couple was always a good sign. Amid waves of controversy, most will fail to see how so a touching a film could ever be remotely disliked.
Along with his brother Bobby, Peter Farrelly has brought quite some dirge to the big screen across the twenty years that have followed their Dumb and Dumber debut. Green Book is the first drama either has produced but comes solely from Peter. This is the story of Frank Anthony Vallelonga Sr. – better known as Tony Lip – the later life maître d’ of a New York Copacabana, occasional star of Martin Scorsese films and one time driver for maestro pianist Don Shelley. While Tony, played with bravura by Mortensen, is brash as brass, greedy and outspoken, not to mention a casual racist, Shelley is quiet, measured, cultured and black. He’s played with tremendous nuance by Ali, who is rightfully experiencing a reprise of the awards success he met for Moonlight. They are, in the grand screwball tradition, a preposterously unlikely double act; and yet, it takes only a passing acquaintance with the likes of Driving Miss Daisy and It Happened One Night for an audience to second guess where this is going.
Similarly unlikely is the setting of Farrelly’s lighthearted drama, which has been co-written by Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s own son Nick Vallelonga. Indeed, for much of the film, Tony can be seen driving Shelley through the Deep South at the height of Jim Crow segregation. When Tony’s club closes for a two month renovation in Autumn 1962, father of two Tony is left with no reliable source of income. Sure, he can win $50 on the quick by taking on Fat Paulie in a hot dog eating competition – Tony manages twenty-four – but it’s Shelley who offers stability. By choice rather than financial necessity – he could be earning double in the more liberal north – Shelley has booked himself on a tour of the Cotton States and requires a chauffeur whose able to show them Southern racists what for. Tony hesitates but a job’s a job and soon enough the would-be buddies have hit the road. While Tony guzzles sandwiches and smokes like a chimney in the front, Shelley drives from the back with instant tips and reminders: ‘ten to two please’. The title refers to the real book used by African American travellers as a guide to the accommodations that would actually accept black customers – they’re not five star.
The critique combatting Green Book’s success has largely been concerned with accusations that the film sees a black man’s story told from a white man’s perspective and that Farrelly neuters the aggression of the Deep South’s racial agenda in favour of a feel-good vibe. Certainly, there’s no smoke without fire but it is unfair to say that the film’s flaws are too much to its detriment. Whilst a running gag about southern fried chicken never quite pulls off the stereotype-busting effect it aims for, there is a disquieting undercurrent of evil lurking beneath the saccharine score of Kris Bowers. As for the focal complaints skewed at the film, that depends on perspective. If one accepts that it is Tony, rather than Shelley, who stands the most to learn from the film’s journey, then it must be seen as wholly appropriate that it is through his lens that the story is told. Further still, Shelley is presented here as an engrossingly complex figure; socially he is too white to be black and too black to ever be white. In one of the film’s more telling sequences, Shelley is permitted to make a sixty minute round trip mid-show to go to his motel’s toilet because his hosts would rather that than allow him to use their whites-only facilities. In another, Shelley attracts the attention of black field workers as a suited sight they never thought they would see. Ali impresses in each. As for the historical accuracy, I cannot comment.
Structurally speaking, Green Book is slight and familiar. On every other level, this is a hugely engaging, crowd-pleasing affair with warmth, humour and humanity aplenty. The performances are stellar and script neatly played for pathos, with every other beat a comic one. If more time could have been spent facing up to the challenges of being a black artist of status in a region dominated by ‘Sundown’ towns and with regard to Shelley’s sexuality, it is hard to wish for it when in the company of a duo for the ages.