Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 24, 2019)
Set in 1962, 2018’s Green Book offers a period look at race relations. New Yorker Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) works as a nightclub bouncer, but when the Copacapabana closes for renovations, he finds himself in need of employment.
A short-term opportunity comes from an unlikely source: African-American concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The musician will take his eponymous trio on a tour of the US Midwest and South, and he needs a driver to help navigate this terrain.
Though the casually racist Tony feels less than enchanted with a job that requires him to play a subservient role to a black man, the chauffeur gig pays well so he takes it. As Tony and Dr. Shirley travel the US, they get to know each other and their disparate circumstances.
When I wrote up Operation Finale, another historical drama set in the early 1960s, I noted that it came from a director with a background that didn’t seem like a natural fit for that project. Finale got made by Chris Weitz, best-known for comedies like 1999’s American Pie and fantasies like Twilight: New Moon.
With Green Book, we find an even more unlikely director: Peter Farrelly, half of the brother team that brought audiences outrageous laughfests like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. Whereas Weitz branched away from broad comedies after the first Pie, Farrelly continued to work with sibling Bobby to produce more efforts in the same general vein as the films mentioned above.
However, the Farrellys’ hits dried up years ago. Actually, 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To - the Farrelly brothers’ last joint effort – turned a profit from its worldwide receipts.
However, this deserves perspective. When we consider that it made about 33 percent less than the original film even though it came out 20 years later and benefited from substantially higher ticket prices, Dumber To came as a commercial disappointment.
Perhaps Peter Farrelly would’ve decided to go for something more serious even if he and Bobby still pumped out financial successes, but this seems less likely to me. Honestly, Mary and the first Dumber offered the brothers’ only two real hits, so it’s a surprise they continued to milk that same comedic cow for so long since audiences showed relatively little interest in their material after 1998.
When I saw Book theatrically, I didn’t realize Farrelly directed it until the end credits rolled, and I feel happy about that ignorance. While I try to enter movies with an open mind, if I knew Farrelly led Book, my long pre-existing impression of him almost certainly would’ve influenced my view of the flick, and not for the better.
The Farrellys created a broad form of comedy that never did much for me. Even though Book takes a more dramatic approach, I still suspect I would’ve viewed it through a different lens if I’d been aware of its director’s identity.
Not that Book offers a straight drama, as Farrelly infuses the film with plenty of humor, especially during the first act. The film becomes more serious as it goes, though even then, it still keeps an air of lightness about it.
Which seems good and bad. On one hand, I appreciate the wit and warmth of Book, as it provides a wholly entertaining 130 minutes of cinema.
Whatever flaws I may find in Book, watchability doesn’t become one of them. The movie never falters in that regard, as it maintains a stable feel that keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish.
It also boasts a wholly enchanting cast, with strong turns from both leads. To be sure, Mortensen plays Tony as a total stereotype, an Italian-American New Yorker seemingly ripped from the cheesiest of mob films.
Despite the rampant clichés on display and an emphasis on the cartoony side of the street, Mortensen still manages so much spark and humanity as Tony that I don’t mind the broadness on display. Do I really believe Tony as a human being? No, but I still find him to be fun, interesting and a good foil for Dr. Shirley.
Mortensen brings a certain borderline giddy tone to the role, though not one that sacrifices drama. When the story gets more serious, he still manages enough impact to give the movie a punch, so even with the cartoon goombah vibe, Mortensen satisfies.
As Dr. Shirley, Ali offers a substantially more natural feel to his role, though he nonetheless manages to mesh well with Mortensen. It makes sense that Ali goes for the more serious impression given that Dr. Shirley experiences all the racism and negativity in the story, and the actor provides a rich performance that seems nuanced and three-dimensional.
The same doesn’t really go for the story itself, though, as Book tends to walk the simplistic side of the street, one that takes some easy outs. In theory, Book should tell Tony’s journey from racism to acceptance, and it does, but the film fails to explore his attitudes in a satisfying manner.
At the movie’s start, Tony so despises African-Americans that when his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) gives beverages to two black men who do work in their apartment, a disgusted Tony throws away the drinking glasses. That appears to represent a man who actively loathes African-Americans.
However, when he meets Dr. Shirley, Tony seems less put off by the pianist’s skin tone and more bothered by his pretensions, and after these brief glimpses of Lip’s racism, those attitudes almost entirely go on the shelf. Sure, Tony sees Dr. Shirley through the lens of preconceived notions, but the same goes for the musician’s take on his driver, and the stereotypes to which Tony connects feel fairly minor.
I also think Book simplifies racism into a true North/South divide. Clearly the 1960s South offered more obvious and institutionalized bigotry than did the North, but Book leaves the impression of a much greater gulf than existed.
Yes, Tony and his pals use some racist terms and attitudes, but these don’t remotely approach the cruelty and negativity Dr. Shirley experiences in the Southern part of his tour. Book embraces the broadest of “redneck” stereotypes to make its points.
The movie also shows the disturbing dichotomy among the more “well-heeled”. The wealthy feel delighted to let Dr. Shirley perform for them but they refuse to even vaguely treat him as an equal.
On a few occasions, Book hints that Dr. Shirley encounters some patronizing racial attitudes in the North, but it leaves these tones largely untouched. Instead, the movie heavily emphasizes the bigoted misery an African-American faced in the South and it displays little nuance.
This seems like a shame, as the film comes with chances to confront racism in all locales and flavors. As noted, we get a taste of bigotry from Tony and his people, but this feels nearly gratuitous, little more than a story point to set up Lip and Dr. Shirley as opposites.
Much of Book plays like a new take on The Odd Couple. Tony feels like a variant on Oscar Madison, while Dr. Shirley comes across as a black version of Felix Unger.
As noted earlier, all of this makes Book highly entertaining, but it also means the movie lacks great depth. While the film receives strong reviews and plenty of awards love, I don’t see it as a “substantial” effort, as it simply fails to become a truly rich drama.
At its heart, Book feels like a 21st century update on Driving Miss Daisy, and that might not be the worst thing in the world. Given the horrid climate for race relations circa 2019, maybe we need a hopeful movie that shows warmth and friendship among men of different races.
Even so, I wish Book went with something deeper. We get a highly entertaining “feel good” tale that simply fails to find the richness that it needs to go to a higher level.