Green Book (2018)
Dir. Peter Farrelly; Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini
[3 out of 4 stars]
It is easy to tell what type of film Green Book (2018) will be from the beginning. A white man and a black man travel through the American South in 1962. Though starkly different at first, they learn about each other and from each other, growing close as they battle external and internal racism as well as their own preconceived notions about each other. It’s a buddy road trip movie, as well as a true story, that mixes humor with poignancy and demonstrates how we are all not so different from one another after all. Despite the cliché plot line, the film remains powerful and sweet, never boring or dry.
Much of Green Book’s emotional impact is due to its two main stars, played by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen is Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American who has “lived in the Bronx all my life.” He moves from job to job, first driving garbage trucks and then working as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub. Tony is on the periphery of the local mob; he knows the guys and they know him, but he manages to stay out of trouble, politely turning them down with a “Nah, I’m good” at every offer of a chance to make some money. He’s an amiable guy who loves his family, which is why — when the Copa closes down for a couple of months for repairs — he’s so desperate to find another way to provide for them. When a local doctor is looking for a driver, he’s eager to get an interview. The doctor ends up being Dr. Don Shirley, a black concert pianist who interviews Tony while sitting in a high-backed wooden throne and wearing a long white, gold-threaded robe. Dr. Shirley is embarking on a concert tour throughout the deep South and needs a driver, as well as someone to keep him safe. Tony is clearly hesitant about taking the job. His attitude toward black people becomes evident early on when, after his wife offers two black men doing repairs on the house a drink of water, he places the two glasses they used in the trash can. The trip will take him away from his family for two months. But, as he tells his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), “it’s good money,” so he accepts, and the unlikely pair set off in a brilliant turquoise Cadillac.
The two could not be more different. Tony has a voracious appetite and often eats as he drives. In one scene, he folds up an entire pizza and takes a bite. Dr. Shirley (or Doc, as Tony calls him) does not eat anything without a plate, napkin and utensils. Tony is irascible and does not hesitant to punch anyone who angers him, whether that be a troublemaker at the Copacabana or a racist cop. Meanwhile, Doc believes that “You only win by maintaining your dignity.” Tony is poor, while Doc is extremely wealthy and performs for scores of affluent, educated people. Tony is uneducated, while Doc is extremely well read and has impeccable diction. In an effort to relate to Doc, Tony tells him that Dolores bought his record “with the orphans on it.” Doc is perplexed until he realizes what Tony is talking about. “Those aren’t orphans,” he says smoothly. “It’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Those are demons in the bowels of Hell.” Tony replies, “Well, shit.”
The entire film is a give and take between its two protagonists. They fight, get on each others nerves, help each other, and learn to look out for one another. One of my favorite scenes occurs when the pair is driving through Kentucky and pass a KFC. “Kentucky fried chicken IN KENTUCKY!” Tony yells. “When’s that gonna happen?” He has to have some, so as he drives he stuffs his face with fried chicken, wiping grease on the steering wheel. He is aghast to hear that Doc has never had fried chicken, exclaiming: “Your people love fried chicken!” Doc has no interest, has never eaten anything with his hands and cannot imagine doing so in a moving car without any sort of utensils. When Tony finally forces a piece of chicken into his hands, Doc looks terrified. “I can’t do this,” he says. When he finally musters up the courage, he loves it, then asks Tony: “What do we do with the bones?” Tony shows him how to throw them out the window, and they drive along chucking chicken bones into the Kentuckian countryside… until Tony throws his plastic cup out the window and Doc makes him turn around to pick it up.
The balance between Doc and Tony continues visually, as many shots feature only the two of them and a turquoise streak of Cadillac. It is a simplistic dynamic, but one that is balanced and colorful and nonetheless works. Much of Green Book takes place within the car, so Peter Farrelly must get creative with in-the-car shots: close ups on both men, views of Doc in Tony’s rearview mirror, wide shots that depict one sitting behind the other. Such a style never becomes boring, however, due to the strength of its two actors. The one shot Farrelly never gives us is one from Doc’s point of view, looking out the window or at the back or Tony’s head. All of the shots in the Cadillac take place from Tony’s point of view a pattern that persists to the rest of the film. The film begins at the Copacabana, where Tony works, and ends at Tony’s apartment, revolving around him. Green Book could have equaled the strength of Tony’s narrative with Doc’s, filming more from his point of view, fleshing out his emotions, depicting his perspective in more detail.
Luckily, Ali performs extremely well, so we nonetheless are able to discern his motives and feelings from scene to scene. He moves through each scene with poise and grace, responding with the utmost delicacy to Tony’s many gaffes. As Tony writes letters to his wife, in sloppy handwriting, scratching out sections and misspelling words, Doc gazes across the table and asks, “What on God’s green earth are you doing?” When Tony answers, Doc is astonished: “It looks more like a piecemeal ransom note.” Of course, Doc’s life is not as simple and clean as it seems, and Ali is able to beautifully convey Doc’s suppressed turmoil through his tremendous piano playing. Although he uses a body double, later in the film we are shown only Doc’s face as he plays, not his hands. Face to face with him, we watch him beat the keys, and although his face remains appropriately composed for such an esteemed audience, fury and despair rage behind his eyes. His music no longer sounds measured and is instead full of true anger. Up until this point, every word Doc speaks seems to have been carefully planned, and when he talks, his face and mouth move as little as possible. To see him here contort and strain in such a fashion is shocking. We become familiar with Doc’s identity crisis as a well-dressed, well-educated black man who is, in his words, “not black enough and not white enough” to fit into either group. He is not allowed to dine in the restaurants at the establishments where he plays, nor is he allowed to use their bathrooms; he is directed instead to wooden outhouses. But customers at the run-down black hotels he is forced to stay at don’t like him either, mocking him for his nice clothes, the sophisticated way he speaks, and his refusal to play horseshoes with them. This dichotomy is evident in Ali’s performance, whose polished exterior occasionally cracks to reveal inner tumult.
Mortensen’s performance as an Italian-American is also quite good, although he sometimes takes it a bit over the top to be completely believable. But he is the perfect foil for Ali’s Dr. Shirley: a loud, lovable bear of a guy. Although their exchanges are oftentimes comedic, Mortensen is careful to not make Tony a caricature. When Tony tells Doc he needs to “learn more about your people” and eat more fried chicken, Doc replies, “You have a very narrow assessment of me, Tony.” Tony, tapping his temple, says, “I know, right? I’m good.” It would have been easy to make Tony seem silly or foolish, unable to compare to Doc’s brilliance and talent. But Mortensen’s Tony is honest and sweet, flawed but moral. Early in the film, Doc rubs him the wrong way, and he vengefully eats the sandwich Dolores has made for Doc. However, Doc slowly grows on him, and he takes pride in protecting him, telling him, “Don’t go anywhere without me.” While he began the film with his own racist ideology, he learns to fight for Doc. He protests along with him when a restaurant owner won’t let him dine there, although his form of protest often comes in the form of violence rather than smooth words. Mortensen’s earnestness and dedication to the role helps him match Ali stroke for stroke.
There are many ways in which Green Book is predictable. When Dolores asks Tony to send her letters while he is away, we know Doc will help Tony craft romantic letters for her. But there are also places where the film chooses to complicate the narrative and avoid clichés. For instance, the film hints at Doc’s loneliness and own troubles. He has no family but a brother he doesn’t speak with. Tony encourages him to reach out to his brother, but he does not, and there is no happy reunion between the two. The film ends without a resolution on this front. Despite the predictable narrative, the film develops full, flawed, human characters and gives them room to grow (and eat fried chicken) together, creating a sweet and satisfying end result that touches on racism and class division while remaining hopeful in a divisive time.