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Ebony And Ivory: A Review Of 'Green Book'

Winner of the Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book punches all the right buttons for the Awards season, and makes it to the finish line in winning fashion, thanks to the undeniable chemistry of its two main stars, Viggo Mortensen and the aforementioned Mahershala Ali. Together they turn this into a surprisingly smooth ride, given the very bumpy subject matters of race, the history of segregation in the 1960s, and an unusual friendship. And if ever a criticism could be leveled against the well-intentioned treatment, it would precisely be how smooth and predictable the whole affair turns out to be. 

 


It's formula in the sense that films such as Forrest Gump, Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, and Hidden Figures have all helped pave the way for creating films like this. But admittedly, Green Book is executed in a particular fashion that sets it apart from those aforementioned film gems. The screenplay written by Farrelly, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga can take some of the credit for this. It’s basically a buddy road film set in the 1960s, as out of work nightclub bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen) is hired to chauffeur Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a classically-trained jazz musician, whose trio embarks on a performance tour of the Deep South. What makes for a neat inversion is that Dr. Shirley is a cultured African-American who studied music, psychology and the liturgical arts; while Tony is a prejudiced, uncouth, foul-mouthed Italian-American. In other words, it’s the black man sitting in the back of the car.

 


 

Given that so many scenes simply take place in the car, with Tony (Mortensen) sitting in the driver’s seat, and Don (Ali) in the rear row; it’s wonderful how our attention and interest never flags. Chalk this up to how sparkling and humorous the dialogue and repartee are between the two, that they’re two consummate actors having a lot of fun on this film, and that the social commentary - both implied and directly addressed - is never less than engaging. 

Even when the narrative turns predictable and riddled with cliché, the two main actors continue to charm, and help us rise above the tedium. Mortensen, as typical method disciple, gained some 45 pounds for the role of Tony, and you’ll love the scene in a hotel room when he folds a pizza and stuffs it into his mouth—not a pizza slice, but a whole pizza! 

In a radical departure from roles he’s taken in the past, it’s evident that Mahershala is enjoying himself, putting on the airs, diction, and gestures that would befit an African-American in the 1960s who knows he’s risen above the average estimation of what a man of his color can achieve, but is forced to continuously face the reality that most whites couldn’t care less about his achievements and academic degrees. That he’s also buried a deep, dark secret surprised some audiences who felt it wasn’t necessary to bring this up, but I feel that if this did in fact happen, it deserves to be in the film.

 


Peter Farrelly deserves an enthusiastic shout-out for having brought this story to cinematic life. Peter is one half of the Farrelly Brothers that gave us such films as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hal. So from those gross-out comedies, he’s maintained that knack for comedic timing; but this time, has given the heavy subject matter a light touch that fully entertains. With Green Book, Farrelly proves that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks.

It’s on this aspect of lightness that some quarters have leveled criticism against the film. Some say it’s too facile a treatment of the themes and subject matter. For their part, the surviving members of the Shirley family have claimed the film is a "symphony of lies" that romanticizes the friendship between Vallelonga and Shirley (both of whom passed away in 2013) to a degree that doesn’t reflect reality. And that the screenplay co-written by Tony Vallelonga’s son takes too much dramatic license, just to produce this feel-good storyline. 

For me, my ultimate takeaway is that, at the very least, one should watch the film for the wonderful acting of the two. The timing, the give-and-take, the asides and the arc of the friendship—they all make for compelling watching, and can serve as an introduction to a very thorny period of recent American history.

 

Photos from iMDb