Thanksgiving is a big time of year for the American film industry. Not only will families across the country have the time off to visit their local movie theater, but awards season is right around the corner, making this long weekend a perfect time to release big titles. I expect the sequels to Fantastic Beasts and Wreck-It Ralph, both of which have family-friendly appeal, to control the box office, while the R-rated heist film Widows from acclaimed director Steve McQueen should generate the most attention from the Academy. But there’s another film splitting these two categories, sporting a PG-13 rating and Oscar-worthy performances from its two stars, that shouldn’t be overlooked this holiday weekend: Peter Farrelly’s Green Book.
Taking its name from a Segregation-era guidebook for African-American roadtrippers, Green Book is based on the real story of Black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) taking a two-month concert tour of the Deep South, after hiring White bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to both drive and protect him. Tony is a streetwise, Italian-American family man with a talent for “public relations,” while Shirley is a virtuoso jazz pianist with a doctorate in Music and Psychology living alone above Carnegie Hall. As you would expect, the film chronicles how the pair from different worlds go from being at odds to developing a close friendship, challenging and overcoming their prejudices along the way. The story, though a good one, makes no effort to break from the formula of the biopic, resulting in occasional moments of predictability and cliché. This, however, is part of the point — formulas exist for a reason, and while following one can easily be a symptom of laziness in lesser films, this is not the case here. Instead, the script intentionally works within this familiar structure to shift the focus from its narrative to its characters. The sheer enjoyability the filmmakers are able to wring from this tired framework is remarkable.
Thanks to this approach, Green Book becomes a vehicle for its stars, and Mortensen and Ali are more than up to the task. The lead roles are complex and engaging, perfectly paired to challenge each other in the many driving scenes that put the two alone in an enclosed space and allow their dynamic to shine. Farrelly avoids the common mistake of making their relationship one-sided by allowing both characters the right to moral complexity — because of Tony’s racism and Shirley’s classism, both begin their journey believing they can look down on the other. Excluded from these character-driven scenes, the supporting cast, except a wonderfully present Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores, is pushed to the side and left undeveloped. The choice to convert side characters into plot vehicles is common of biopics, however, and Tony and Shirley are so thoroughly inhabited that you’ll likely share the filmmakers’ assessment of their importance.
Tony is the film’s protagonist in terms of perspective, his experiences guiding the audience through the story, and this choice is important. Mortensen fills the screen with charm and bravado, and the time we spend just with him helps sharpen the contrast of Ali’s dignified, distant performance. Shirley possesses an unrivaled talent that has brought him wealth and fame, but the White upper class refuses to accept him beyond his capacity as artist and performer, while his life experiences have left him unable to relate to most Black Americans. He is utterly isolated, and the audience must paradoxically be cut off from his point of view to understand the loneliness he carries within him.
This odd-couple biographical film is a sharp departure for Farrelly in his first solo outing, since the Rhode Island native is best known for making There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber with his brother, but his comedy background turns out to perfectly fit the material. The film is full of humor that makes the viewing experience extremely fun while also forming part of a study of how human beings connect. Beyond simply exchanging stories, Tony and Shirley make each other laugh, share food and discuss music, and it is these moments that allow for deeper admiration to develop, not only between the two characters but with the audience as well. Much like its central pianist, Green Book runs on a combination of quality and hope — too rare a film these days — that will pair perfectly with your holiday dinner.
WhatsUpRI Rating: 4 out of 5
WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money