Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Peter Farrelly
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D Marinov, Dane Rhodes.
Driving Mr Shirley?
Like the multi-Oscar winning Driving Miss Daisy and many other films, this feel good and crowd pleasing drama explores the unlikely and unusual interracial friendship that develops between two people from different backgrounds and environments and how they develop a mutual understanding that helps to break down prejudice and racist barriers. The film explores universal themes of racism, class, politics, and the changing face of America in the turbulent 60s. Part road movie and part buddy road trip comedy, Green Book has been inspired by a true story, but like so many other films it takes some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. And it is some of these liberties that has seen the film recently mired in controversy.
The film is set in autumn of 1962. African American classical piano virtuoso Don Shirley (played superbly by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, from Moonlight, etc) is about to embark on a concert tour of America’s deep south, a region still deeply bigoted. The record company insists he be accompanied by a capable driver who can act as a bodyguard in case of any trouble. Enter Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen, from The Road, etc), a tough wiseguy from the Bronx who works as a bouncer at the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York. But with the nightclub closed for renovations Tony is at a bit of a loose end, and accepts the assignment. The tour will take two months, and Tony hopes to be back home with his family to celebrate Christmas.
Once on the road the differences between the two men are immediately apparent. One of the foremost classical musicians of the era, Shirley is a cultured and well educated man known world wide for his musical abilities, while Vallelonga is a gruff and brawny plain talking Italian-American from a tough neighbourhood and a bit rough around the edges. Tony is initially uncomfortable around African Americans.
But during the journey the pair bond and overcome their early prejudices about their contrasting lifestyles and backgrounds. Both men find some common ground, and the film delivers some positive messages about tolerance and acceptance, which resonate strongly in today’s increasingly divisive world and it certainly pushes the right buttons.
Surprisingly, Green Book comes from director Peter Farrelly, who is best known for the series of raunchy politically incorrect comedies he directed with his brother Bobby (Dumb And Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Stuck On You, etc). This is a change of pace for Farrelly, and he handles the material with sensitivity and subtlety but he occasionally lapses into sentimentality. Nonetheless, this well made and earnest film is quite accessible and a real crowd pleaser that has also been attracting a lot of love in the lead up to the awards season.
Written by Farrelly, actor turned writer Brian Hayes Currie (Two Tickets To Paradise) and Vallelonga’s son Nicky, Green Book reverses the roles of Driving Miss Daisy, the film is by turns funny, engaging, confronting and uplifting and even touching. The developing friendship between the two men is well drawn and strong, and gives the film its central focus. The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Sean Porter (20th Century Women, etc) whose warm palette gives the material a nice feel. The great soundtrack incorporates blues, jazz and even a dose of 60s rock and adds to film’s broad appeal.
The Green Book of the title was a guide book published that outlined the hotels, restaurants and other segregated places which were acceptable for African Americans travelling across the country. The journey opens up Tony’s eyes to the sort of institutionalised racism that Shirley has often experienced in America. He is allowed to perform for wealthy white clients in lavish hotels and concert halls, but he is not allowed to dine or sleep in these establishments.
Mortensen stacked on the weight to play Vallelonga, and he delivers a wonderfully nuanced but showy performance, and he brings plenty of charm to the character. Ali is moving in his role as he captures Shirley’s sense of vulnerability and confusion and he delivers a more restrained performance. As a closeted black man from a refined and somewhat sheltered background, Shirley is also caught between two worlds – not black enough nor white enough to fit in – and it takes “great courage” to change people’s attitudes and hearts. Linda Cardellini (from Scooby-Doo, etc) is also very good as Tony’s supportive and caring wife Dolores and makes the most of her few scenes.Green Book is a journey well worth taking with its wonderful story, its strong central performances and its strong positive messages about tolerance and understanding.