15th Jan2019

‘Green Book’ Review – Second Opinion

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Jon Sortland, Don Stark, Anthony Mangano, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy | Written by Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie | Directed by Peter Farrelly

green-book-poster

Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian-American bouncer at New York’s Copa nightclub, a classy joint popular with the mob community. After some serious fisticuffs, the Copa is closed for refurbishment, and Tony finds himself on a sabbatical. He can’t support his family taking odd jobs and indulging in eating competitions (however magnificent an eater he may be); so when the opportunity arises to drive a wealthy musician, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on a tour of the Deep South, he jumps at the chance. Except Tony never jumps as such – he kind of jiggles.

An unashamedly crass slob, Tony is chosen for his no-nonsense style because Shirley knows there will be trouble. This is early-1960s America, and here’s a white man driving a black man. What neither man knows is how the road trip – which takes them through the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama et al – will change their perception of each other, and by extension their whole worldview. Shirley is pure refinement, blessed with a classical education and zero street smarts. Tony, meanwhile, is entirely unencumbered by education, or tact, or any of the qualities the doc typically admires. Yet somehow, very organically, life lessons are mutually learned.

Peter Farrelly’s film couldn’t be more topical. It is firmly positioned as a retort to the idea that a “liberal” – or just your common or garden polite – social outlook is somehow incompatible with masculinity (as per the “cuck” culture of the alt-right). Tony is a man whose typically masculine (and absurdly oafish) traits are evident and unapologetic; yet he begins to understand that he is not shackled by them. In short, he learns that it’s okay to give a shit.

A more bombastic treatment of this story would portray Tony as outwardly bigoted and racist. But he’s not. He’s just unthinking. When he discards a pair of drinking glasses used by two black handymen, it’s not a political statement or even a matter of disgust, it’s an automatic response. In failing to resist or even question this kneejerk segregation, Tony is perpetuating the prevailing ideology of the time: that blacks and whites are intrinsically different creatures.

It’s remarkable to think that this is the director who made Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Comedy classics they are, but hardly natural preparation for a film of Green Book’s slower pacing and greater subtlety. That’s not to say the film isn’t funny (the interplay between Mortensen and Ali is every bit as effective as Carrey and Daniels) but Farrelly is showing a side to himself hitherto unseen or even hinted at. His filmmaking approach is unstylish and unfussy, and shows the efficiency and accessibility of a veteran director who is comfortable working in a new genre.

We can’t say Mortensen is cast against type because we’ve come to expect a transformation from this versatile actor. He’s a hard man, like his Nikolai from Eastern Promises, but in every other way he couldn’t be more different, as he slaps his flabby belly, chain smokes and chatters incessantly. He’s having a ball. Ali has the tougher role. The yin to Tony’s yang, he maintains an intellectualist defence against the grotesqueness of Deep South attitudes, so every emotion is internalised. It’s a stunningly moving performance, especially in those moments where the armour cracks; where he reaches out of his loneliness.

Is the film clichéd? Absolutely. But every cliché offers a slightly new perspective. Tony is a bruiser with a heart of gold, but he’s literally punishing that heart with diet of hot dogs and cigarettes. The doc is adrift in a white world that treats him as a token, but he also feels unwelcome in a black community that regards him as a traitor. The only major disappointment is the role of Tony’s wife, played by Linda Cardellini, who is given nothing more to do than play the decent housewife waiting for her husband to catch up to her way of thinking.

Loosely based on real-life events, Green Book is a familiar story, told with enormous warmth and heart. What it lacks in originality it makes up for in modern relevance. It’s the perfect tonic in an increasingly binary world: a call to arms to make the effort of understanding the perspective of those whose worlds are alien to us – moreover, those who themselves feel alien. Its release is well-positioned for awards season and it deserves to add to its Golden Globes success.

Green Book is out in cinemas from 1st February 2019.

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