Green Book is a movie that comes along every few years. close to awards season, based on real people and with historical problems as the backdrop. Not that this should be taken as a negative for the movie, historical movies and stories dealing and explaining about racism are very important and can be some of the best movies ever, for example, To Kill A Mockingbird and 12 Years A Slave. It’s just that there is an obvious supply and demand for these movies, what matters is how well it does its job.
Our story begins in 1962 in New York. There is a nightclub that plays music and caters to all sorts, some are notorious gangsters. One of the people working the club is Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) whose nickname is “Tony Lip”, he knows how to talk to the patrons and defuse tense situations and can punch out nearly anyone, he also has a talent for manipulating a situation so he gets what he wants. The nightclub closes for fixing so Tony needs to find work for a few months, he gets a message for an interview, he goes to the top of a concert hall where he meets “Doc” Don Shirley a highly acclaimed musician and a black man (Tony didn’t know this). He is planning a long, three-month concert in the deep south of America, Tony is to serve as his driver and bodyguard.
Before the journey begins Tony has given the “Green Book” a guide book for black people in the south. It tells them which hotels, motels, bars etc. So he wishes his loving wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) they get into their blue car that the record company has provided for them that also pops out against the mostly green environment of the South and the journey begins.
As any pairing must be they are not an instantly compatible. They are obviously different races, have different body types, enjoy different things and have to deal with social interactions completely parallel to each other. Tony has spent most of his life in Brooklyn working shady deals, usually speaking with his fists and getting by on working when he can. Don Shirley is articulate and carries himself as if everything he has ridden on his flawless dignity, he enjoys high society culture and etiquette.
Road movies lend themselves well to characters arcs. The characters start in one place, begin their journey, experience things and interact and face some kind of obstacle and they either reach their destination or return to the same place they started but changed. Being that there are multiple stops it lets the characters experience different scenarios in different ways, keeps them fairly brief and then in-between they are in the car together and must discuss it. There is also a few segments of montage to convey the overall journey and condenses the running time.
I have to admit that this movie is predictable. We have seen many other road movies and if I gave you the setup you can probably guess what kinds of conversations and prejudices they will face and where they will end up in the end. This does adhere to a form, however that does not instantly make a movie substandard, what matters is how it is framed, played out and if it brings anything new to the table. This very sharply deconstructs many of the social built-in prejudices and insecurities. Shirley is a man that has been around the world and because of the colour of his skin has learned what is important and what is actually rather superfluous.
Director Peter Farrely isn’t the name that would come to your head for a serious, human subject matter like this. He and his brother, Bobby, are the co-writers and directors for outlandish comedies such as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Me Myself and Irene and so on. Yet, to probably everyone’s surprise he handles the material well. There are some fun moments of banter as well as a few comedic moments and being that he also wrote the screenplay these were probably his contributions. These moments would usually cheapen this serious subject matter but here they serve for us to warm up to the characters as well as are used to intercede a serious moment or important talking point.
Green Book has a familiar and enduring setup and with leads that excels in performing their characters. It plays it safe but comes with some sharp analysis of some of the deeper things going on in society and how we perceive others and ourselves.