Director: Peter Farrelly
Screenplay: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Runtime: 130 Minutes
The fact that Green Book has become such a major talking point this award season as a serious contender feels almost undone once it has been seen. For all the blowhard antagonism coming from both sides of the argument – that being that it’s the safest possible option for an award contender in western cinema (dealing with racism in the context of the past) or that it’s pleasing to any number of people not already tuned into the zeitgeist that is the storming of multiplexes by a new breed of ‘global’ cinema – the film is mostly just a passable, light enough piece of fluff “both sides are right” storytelling that feels a few decades out of its comfort zone but none-the-less works on its own terms.
Based on a true story set in Jim Crow south in the 1960s, it follows a tour between African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who served as Shirley's driver and bodyguard. Although, much of this has been rebuked by the family of Shirley.
What ends up unfolding is pretty much drawn there from the outset, with all the conflict fallout out of the racial relations between both men and the world surrounding them as they build a friendship after their initial distaste for one another is out of the way – with Vallelonga’s Italian-American working-class roots butting up against Shirley’s upper culture standards, and the middle-ground to be found in Shirley embracing more of his ‘black’ roots and Vallelonga learning to express himself beyond bluntness and violence, and both of them learning to put their prejudices aside.
It’s a discomforting and insufferable sounding premise in that way, especially with a white man proceeding to explain black culture to a black man and putting it down to his down-to-earth blue-collar life (there’s also a comparison to be mined from its relation to the reaction of Middle America and the “elites” of the 2016 presidential election), but it mostly ends up working down to a handful of smaller moments where it’s not shouting the messages out loud.
There’s also the performances of Mortensen and Ali who are really operating way above the material they’ve been given to work with. Mortensen is an old pro at this kind of old-fashioned character acting and Ali is generally fabulously well suited to pretty much any role he is handed even if this does mark a slight skew against type.
Green Book won’t leave an impression on or win over anyone set within their own space of mind concerning the story and it’s presentation – most of which is competently handled by director Peter Farrelly if not all that convincingly – but it isn’t quite as insufferable as it all sounds with two very likeable performances leading it through the mediocrity.