Peter Farrelly is not a name I typically associate with Oscar buzz. So, despite the rumors of respectability surrounding Green Book, I walked in prepared to be confronted with “Dumb and Dumber Duz the Deep South” or “Kingpin 2: The Civil Rights Years.” Thankfully, this is Farrelly’s id at its most restrained, and though vestiges of the writer/director’s road-trip buddy-comedy background remain, Green Book still manages to be both tasteful and entertaining. While the white guilt is laid on heavily, it isn’t quite the reductive racism roadshow I had expected, and dynamic performances from stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen bolster a solid script from Farrelly, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga. I don’t see this one taking home a statuette come February, but it’s probably worth a watch regardless.
I must admit to having been entirely unaware of the real-life basis for Green Book, the unexpected professional partnership and unlikely friendship that developed between virtuosic pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and casually racist quasi-mobster Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) on a concert tour through the segregation-era South. As you might reasonably expect from a movie of this sort, they eventually find common ground and foster a mutual appreciation for one another in the process. If that sounds trite to you, well, that must be because you’re very perceptive. Perhaps the most interesting observation I came away with is that, while I feared Farrelly’s unavoidable tendency to digress into comedic territory would undermine Green Book’s very serious subject matter, it’s that very sense of humor that saves the film from becoming unbearably dour.
It’s really the performances delivered by Ali and Mortensen that sell the occasionally dissonant script, and they truly are noteworthy turns. Mortensen’s certainly no stranger to playing heavies, but he brings a deranged affability to his portrayal of self-proclaimed “bullshit artist” Tony Lip that distinguishes the role from his prior work. But for my money, he’s outshone by Ali, who brings a graceful imperiousness to his take on Dr. Shirley that only becomes more fascinating as his facade of imperturbability begins to show its inevitable cracks. The two boast an admirable onscreen chemistry that proves almost inexhaustibly watchable, even as the surrounding narrative fails to do them both justice.
As a director, I doubt Farrelly has ever been considered much of a stylist — and Green Book is unlikely to disabuse anyone of that notion. The script is aimed squarely at an aging demographic struggling to come to terms with decades of institutional racism, and its heartwarming narrative handles such hand-wringing boomers with somewhat unearned kid gloves, strangely mirrored by Farrelly’s lackadaisical visual aesthetic. Still, as far as such things go, Green Book proves more emotionally affecting than one might presume. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie about mid-’60s racism this holiday season, I suppose this would be it. Like its titular guidebook to the oases of acceptance intermittently available to black travelers of the era, Green Book is a film that finds safe haven in some questionable places, and not without a modicum of tribulation. But with Mortensen and Ali behind the wheel, Farrelly’s film gets where it needs to go.