Middle of the road
One of the directors of <Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary goes solo with his first “serious” feature effort, and I can safely say that nobody has a diarrhea attack or uses certain bodily fluids as hair gel in this film.
Director Peter Farrelly, sans little brother Bobby, gives us Green Book, essentially a remake of Driving Miss Daisy with the roles reversed and starring Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the Academy Award winning actor from Moonlight (Mahershala Ali). It’s a feel good movie about race relations that goes light on the grit and heavy on the sentiment.
Based on a true story, Mortensen plays Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer at the Copacabana who finds himself temporarily without a job as the club is getting renovated. His next gig installs him as a driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American classical pianist who is touring a jazz trio in the early 1960s Deep South.
So this is a road movie, with Tony driving and Shirley sitting in the back. As they venture south, they talk about fried chicken, Chubby Checker and letter writing. There is nothing in their dialogue that is anything remotely original or surprising, but Farrelly is lucky to have these two guys in the car. Without them, this film would be a total slog. The duo is, at times, fun to watch, even when the movie around them isn’t.
The two use a book with the same title as the movie—a guide for African Americans offering a listing of safe havens where they can eat and find shelter in the South. The deeper south the tour goes, the lousier the accommodations for Don become. A rich man up north, Don is reduced to skeevy rooms and nothing but a bottle of Cutty Sark to get him through the night.
Segregation rears its ugly head as Don tries to do things such as buy a suit or eat in a restaurant where he’s been hired to play. This is where Tony becomes the hero, stepping in for his boss and occasionally cracking a few skulls. Yes, Tony is Dr. Don’s white knight, a man who will learn to love just a little bit more no matter the color of somebody’s skin, and perhaps drop just a few less racial slurs, before the credits roll.
The film doesn’t feel like it was made today. It has the sensibilities of a movie made somewhere around the late ’80s or mid-90s. It’s a little too safe and predictable for its own good. A movie about racism needs to be uglier than the one Farrelly has made. This one tries a little too hard to not upset. I have no problem with an optimistic viewpoint and a happy ending, but something about this movie, even though the characters are based on real people, rings a little false and shallow.
That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to some degree. Mortensen, who has had his share of dramatic and action roles, gets a chance to show off some comedic timing. He also put on over 40 pounds for the role. That, coupled with your typical Italian accent, makes him OK in the type of role that used to go to the likes of Danny Aiello and the late Dennis Farina.
Mahershala is good as Shirley, so good you wish the script matched the majesty of his work. Seamless special effects make it look like he can play a mean piano (Kris Bowers, the film’s score composer, is also Ali’s piano double).
Green Book is the sort of movie that has Oscar written all over it, but you won’t see me trumpeting it when it’s time for the golden boys to be passed out. The movie is average at best, delivering a relatively good time while feeling quite dated. I expect a little more heft from a movie with this subject matter.