Peter Farrelly (Yes One Half Of The Farrelly Brothers) Directs His First Drama, “Green Book”. One Of 2018’s Very Best Films.
The title “Green Book” comes from the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide published from 1936 to 1966. A guide used in the pre-Civil Rights era that provides African American travelers information on hotels, eateries, and more where they will be accepted. “Green Book” is probably the most un-expected sleeper hit of the year. Not to mention it’s impressively taking the awards season by storm.
It won the National Board of Review award for best film of 2018, and was chosen as one of the Top 10 films by the American Film Institute, received numerous award nominations, including winning the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture and Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy. “Green Book” has also received five nominations at the 91st Academy Awards. Including Best Picture, Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Supporting Actor (Marshela Ali), Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.
Directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly Brothers, best known for putting hair gel in Cameron Diaz’s hair, is just one of many surprises that emerge in this handsomely made film as it tackles heavy issues with comedy that is both broad and subtle. Peter Farrelly made a throwback film that was once of the golden era of Hollywood.
This is Peter Farrelly’s first drama after years of filming comedies like “There’s Something About Mary”, “Dumb & Dumber”, “KingPin”, “Me Myself & Irene” and “The HeartBreak Kid”. Farrelly is in a way a first time filmmaker with 25 years of experience. His impressive solo directorial debut has a real warmth in both his direction and in both Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen’s performances.
It’s 1962, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer and enforcer from the Bronx, has been hired to drive the renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a two-month tour of the famed Don Shirley Trio that will drive through the Midwest before taking to the Deep South. Don is a sophisticated, worldly, highly educated, genius musician who speaks multiple languages, while Tony is a grunting, ignorant semi-thug whose entire and quite ignorant worldview has been molded by his life in the Bronx. Temporarily out of work and in need of cash to provide for his family, Tony takes the lucrative $125 a week plus expenses gig for Don Shirley. Tony chain smokes and talks up a storm in the front seat, while Don is proper by sitting up straight in the back seat, wearing beautifully coordinated outfits with a blanket across his lap.
Don is an interesting guy. He lives in a home that sits above Carnegie Hall; a personal museum of fine antiquities and tribal novelties, he literally sits on a throne and has a servant at his beck and call. He couldn’t be more opposite of Tony. His job requires more than just skills behind the wheel; Tony will need to be Don’s assistant, chauffeur and his protection.
What follows is a gender twist on “Driving Miss Daisy”. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t going to be a complicated movie and the trajectory of their relationship and where the film is going to take us, we know even before Tony and Don have driven a single mile. To describe “Green Book” as predictable is an under statement. We know that Tony will get into a few brawls, he will need to save Don from racist cops or drunks looking for a fight. They will obviously have a big blowup at some point, only to find common ground that brings them back together. But Peter Farrelly balances the predictability of the story with a dose of shifting tones and humor that is both broad and subtle. The script is co-written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s real life son Nick Vallelonga. Tony’s son grew up listening to his stories and recorded interviews with him before his passing in 2013. At least the fundamentals are true.
Viggo Mortensen was fairly involved with the picture and really took the role to heart. Per his suggestion, the movie has no opening credits or title card. He felt this will immerse the viewers in the action and make them forget they’re watching a film. Mortensen is terrific as Tony, having beefed up by gaining 30 pounds. The role is a game-changer for the actor, whose dramatic chops have been recognized before in his Academy Award nods for “Eastern Promises” and “Captain Fantastic”. He proves he’s got a real flair for comedy that feels revelatory. The performance is so perfect, so impeccably detailed, that you forget Mortensen isn’t the real Tony Vallelonga. It’s a terrific character for Mortensen to sink his teeth into. Rarely has he seemed to be having more fun. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the film, Tony who later in life became a mainstay of nineties gangster movies, appearing in such classics like “GoodFellas”, “Donnie Brasco”, “Godfather”, “Raging Bull”, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Sopranos”.
Mahershala Ali who is taking the lead in Season 3 of HBO’s “True Detective”, became an Oscar winner two years ago for Best Supporting Actor for the well deserved Best Picture winner “Moonlight”. Once again Mahershala Ali proves he is a superb actor who has a chance once again at taking home the Oscar for the second time as Best Supporting Actor. Although his stiffest competition is Sam Elliott from “A Star Is Born”. Ali has already been awarded 14 awards out of the 34 nominations for his role as Don Shirley.
Ali is magnificent as he makes us see that Don is on his own when it comes to finding a place to belong. Ali is stupendous at showing Don alive in his art. In one of the film’s many great scenes, Tony senses his genius but is horrified that Don doesn’t know Chubby Checker, Little Richard or Aretha Franklin. Or the scene of Don and his first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Unable to fit in with black people who don’t understand his cultured talents, discriminated by the rich white people who pay to hear him play, and prejudiced in other ways. Shirley is as complicated as Tony is easy to figure out, but its their differences that open up new worlds for them both. Mortensen and Ali have chemistry right off the bat and it never loses any steam as the 2 hour and 10 minute running time rolls on.
“E.R.” alum Linda Cardellini does fine work as Tony’s wife, even though she’s saddled with one of those wife roles where most of her screen time is spent on the phone with him, reading letters from Tony or talking to her girlfriends about her husband. Primarily, though, “Green Book” is a friendship story about the two men. Most of their adventures are painted in broad strokes, and the messages are hardly subtle, but thanks to the winning chemistry between Ali and Mortensen, a great direction from Peter Farrelly and an inspirational true life story as its foundation, this was one of the best times I’ve had at the movies in 2018.
“Green Book” ends in a gush of Christmas themed feel good that it feels to safe and cutesy it will probably drive some folks off the wall. “Green Book” certainly meets our expectations at every intersection and turn. Although it occasionally veers from the sentimental into corny territory, yet it’s still one of best comfort food movies of 2018. Within the festival circuits, audiences have reported to have roared with laughter throughout and gave it the strongest round of applause outside of “A Star Is Born”.
“Green Book” takes us on a journey that we hardly need a map to navigate because of it’s predictability, but the comfort we feel once at the gushy climax, is everything we hoped it to be. Frankly I didn’t care how predictable it ended up. “Green Book” is an ace in the hole and everyone involved, especially director, co writer and producer Peter Farrelly can all be proud of what they have accomplished.
GRADE: ★★★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★