Review: Green Book (2019) – The Road Less Travelled

Marhershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book

When people say the name Peter Farrelly they think of slapstick comedies like Dumb and Dumber or There’s Something About Mary. Green Book wouldn’t even enter into the conversation. That is why it is so surprising that Farrelly’s latest is a straight-laced road movie that pushes against the notions of racism, bigotry and homosexuality while never really getting involved. A film that stands of the precipice of actual social commentary but shies away at the last second. That isn’t to say Farrelly hasn’t created something great. Green Book is a fun little film that never lets you down in terms of entertainment, it’s just hard not to see how it could have been so much more.

Green Book tells the story of the relationship between Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a club bouncer and Dr Don Shirley (Marhershala Ali), an acclaimed pianist. When Don hires Tony to drive him through the deep south on a concert tour for eight weeks they know little of each other and respect each other even less. When the two take the time to see things from their counterparts eyes, things become clearer and a close friendship begins to emerge.

While it is easy to state that Green Book isn’t Oscar material, something I keep hearing recently, it is detrimental to a film that is wonderfully sombre and rapturously funny. Sure if it was me, it might not have made the cut but to relegate it to the position of being not worthy denigrates a film that people have committed their soul to and it shows. The irony is that Green Book at its heart is a film of how friendships and understanding come in many different shapes and sizes and acceptance is more important than opinion. While this might belittle the job of a critic, so be it, it’s a lovely sentiment that should be praised.

However Farrelly and co writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie haven’t crafted a story without its flaws and it commits one of the biggest crimes in film in trying to fix its characters instead of embracing them for who they are. While some of the change in Don and Tony comes naturally there are moments of contrived ‘learning’ where they embrace the others point of view and change for someone else, not for themselves, something that just shouldn’t and doesn’t happen in the real world. We own our mistakes, our changes and our successes. These two real people are constructed to be palatable, to fit in comfortably in a film trying desperately not to offend anyone.

Farrelly makes it less about changing though and more about perspective, the changing landscape masked in the country they travel brings a new America into perspective for Tony and the old America that Don avoided into his. The idea of being better is all well and good and makes for a nice message but the notion that Don and Tony, by talking to each other like unique human beings makes this feel like a story of new beginnings. Not only because of the new experiences and first times that permeate the story but because these two bind together because of these differences.

Mortensen and Ali fall into the nuances of Tony and Don but most of all they find what is real and fake in the script. Both characters hide behind a persona and what crumbles away subtly throughout is the nonsense they say to hide the real that exists beyond the drivel they spout to conceal it. While the direction here is often painfully simplistic, it is backed up by a script that reads between the lines, giving you characters that bend and break outside of the words they speak. Both Tony and Don are never truly themselves and they both spend their eight week sojourn deciphering each other in intimate detail.

With a classic sound that helps bring out the playful nature of Farrelly’s film, this is a film that pushes people to be better but also to enjoy the simple pleasures to be found in people. Differentiating itself from a conventional biopic by being about the new and not the old, Farrelly has pulled off a film with mass appeal but he has also limited it in generalisations. The story has a simple elegance but also a plainness that makes it seem afraid of its own consequences.

Desperate to set Tony and Don free, Green Book plays it safe. Sweet and tender but overly frilly, Farrelly never pushes himself while pressing his characters to change and the road movie formula traps him in familiar territory. But if you look beyond the trappings of what the film looks like and peek within you will find a sardonic wit and a story full of vibrant character, enough to make the blemishes seem paltry in comparison.


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