Green Book (2018). Film review of the drama about a black concert pianist and his white driver in the 1960’s.

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Drama

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Film review, by Jason Day, of Green Book the moving drama about an acclaimed, cultured black concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) who hires a tough, working-class nightclub bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard during a daring tour of the Deep South.

Synopsis

Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) scrapes a living working as a nightclub bouncer in New York and lives in a one bedroom apartment with his beloved wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their two young sons. Despite being devoted to them, he accepts an offer from the refined, cultured pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to drive between gigs for a daring tour of the Deep South, daring because Shirley is black. Despite both aggravating the other, a deep respect and friendship develops as they encounter hostility and hypocrisy.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

The Negro Motorist Green Book…at times styled The Negro Motorist Green-Book or titled The Negro Travelers’ Green Book…commonly referred to simply as The Green Book.

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book

January and February are always the best months for UK cinema – in the run-up to the Oscars (the date is Sunday 25 February), a slew of nominated films pack movie houses. And 2019 is giving up some fine offerings.

The Favourite is up for 10 awards (three of its actresses are nominated), A Star is Born nabs seven nods and BlackKlansman – for me, the best film of last year – gets six…and I still haven’t seen the outsider Roma, which weighs in with a mighty 10 nominations.

Green Book is a crafty twist on Driving Miss Daisy (1989), a role reversal race relations road-trip in which the driver/worker is white and the passenger/boss is black.

Farrelly establishes the race power dynamics from the very outset of the movie but does not plump for obvious racial-divide symbolism or commentary – Green Book is smart to avoid such base things.

Two black workmen fix the kitchen appliances in Italian-American Tony’s tiny flat on a roasting hot New York summer’s day. His wife Dolores gives them a glass of lemonade each. Tony, quietly seething with his relatives who, in Italian, refer to the interlopers as ‘Eggplants’. Tony thinks the glasses have been despoiled by their lips and summarily throws the receptacles in the bin.

Later, at Tony and Don’s first meeting Tony, wearing what can only be described as the slobbiest interview suit, is faced with a resplendent, golden-gowned, almost deified Shirley, who perches slightly above him on a magnificent African-styled chair that, given Shirley’s regal air of superiority, clearly represents a throne.

In his back-seat throne, Dr Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) in Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly. Image: Universal Pictures.

The set-up does not escape Tony’s attention, but he barely comments on it. He has every reason to be disrespectful to someone who is black, but the writers side-step what could be a sloppily scripted response of a barbed retort or argument. This avoidance of taking the easy route to establishing this relationship marks Green Book as something special.

Later in the film, Tony is called by the police at a town where Shirley has a concert. Arriving in the showers of a local gym, he sees his boss and another man, both naked, handcuffed and bloodied after a beating. Clearly, Shirley is a homosexual.

You would expect a ‘real’ man such as Tony to give a derisive glance to these incapacitated queers, or to side with the cops who have battered them. Instead, he simply pays the officers off with the promise of a good suit, like the one Shirley was unable to buy in a shop earlier because the material would touch his black skin.

Minutes later when the two men talk, Tony expresses only concern about Shirley’s person and that walks on the wild side like that, without him being present, will negatively affect their income.

There is no moral judgement from Tony, despite the fact being gay was illegal in most parts of the world at this point in time. He calmly and methodically sorts the situation, dispatched like the hundreds of rowdy nightclub patron’s he has chucked out.

This surprisingly tolerant, human touch can be explained in fiscal terms. After all, if Shirley doesn’t make his next recital, both men will lose money and Tony is desperate for cash. But Farrelly is a canny director and as he has already established, there are more intelligent aspects of these men’s character to explore. Tony actually likes the fussy, farty, frustrated boss who assists him with writing love letters to Delores that are obviously ghost-written by someone else. Homophobia has no place with Tony – his boss, naked on the floor of the gym, is humiliated enough. There is nothing to be gained by adding to it.

“Take this down…” Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Shirley (Mahershala Ali) in Green Book. Image: Universal Pictures.

Likewise, it would be churlish to ‘call’ the better performance here – both actors are equally great. Mortensen, with his portly gut, swaggering gait and profanity-strewn delivery, is up for the Best Actor Oscar. It’s his third such nomination in the past 11 years and is a rollicking, funny, but also touching performance. It might well scoop him the statuette this time.

Unaccountably, Ali is in the Best Supporting Actor Oscar category – an award he has already won for his kindly drug dealer in Moonlight (2016) – despite sharing almost equal screen time with Mortensen. Still, this is a delicately shaded, fragrant turn. Shirley is a man who, for understandable reasons, has declined love and emotion so that his artistic talents can soar. The dichotomy between Tony’s bloated self and Shirley’s darker skin but superior manners and intellect are obvious, but so is the fact Tony has a loving and happy home and Shirley lives alone in a sterile, object-stuffed apartment.

You’d think the corny ending, with Shirley leaving that empty, anchorite life and arriving at Tony’s bustling hovel with a bottle of champagne, all smiles into the embrace of an accepting caucasian household would grate. But, in Farrelly’s hands, this potentially mawkish, syrupy moment is delivered as a beautiful, natural conclusion to the story. In real life, it signified the start of a proper friendship of equals that lasted both men’s lifetimes. Truly heartwarming.

For more, see the official website.

Cast & credits

Director: Peter Farrelly. 2hrs 10 mins/13mins. Participant Media/Dreamworks Pictures/Innisfree Pictures/Cinetic Media. (12a)

Producers: Jim Burke, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler.
Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly.
Camera: Sean Porter.
Music: Kris Bowers.
Sets: Tim Galvin.

Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese.

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