Tag Archives: Green Book

Green Book: Familiar But Engaging Buddy/Road/Race Relations Movie

Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (along with his brother Robert, best known for low-brow comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary ) starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is the kind of film that Hollywood absolutely loves to produce and that tends to win Academy Awards: A buddy film that takes place on the road, with a mismatched black and white duo and dealing with serious social issues.

Tony Lip (a moblike nickname) is a bouncer at a nightclub who has at least casual ties to local mob figures. Despite a penchant for gambling, he manages to steer clear of their dubious offers of easy money. When the nightclub closes, he seeks employment and has an interview for an unusual driving job with a musician named Don Shirley (Ali).

The two are about as mismatched as you could imagine. “Doctor” Shirley is a classical musician, a Ph.D. who speaks multiple languages while Tony Lip is a garrulous street character whose diction Shirley immediately starts to correct.

As the two drive to the segregated South of 1962, they encounter predictable instances of racism and hypocrisy. While Shirley is superficially honored as a great musician, he is not allowed to dine with white people or even use their toilets.

The lessons the two impart to one another are predictable. Tony’s worldview expands while Shirley learns to loosen up and even enjoy fried chicken (a recurring joke that’s milked throughout the film).

It would be easy to dismiss Green Book as merely a series of familiar tropes. Despite this, strong performances and some moving, as well as humorous moments, provide genuine pathos as well as entertainment. It does come perilously close to falling into the “white savior” category as Tony (Mortensen) acts as bodyguard and protector to. However, he’s just flawed enough to avoid being too blatantly a savior.

The film was “inspired by a true story,” which means that somewhere, sometime, something at least remotely similar may have occurred. Green Book gets its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an actual book which provided information on which hotels and other businesses permitted blacks to enter.

The fact that Green Book has been nominated for Best Picture can be attributed mainly to Hollywood’s long-time attachment to familiar themes and uplifting tales involving race. Driving Miss Daisy, a film that invites comparisons to Green Book for obvious reasons won Best Picture in 1990, a year when a far more cutting-edge drama dealing with racial issues, Do The Right Thing, wasn’t even nominated.

Both Mortensen and Ali were also nominated for, respectively, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Whatever little relevance the Oscars have these days, the actors are deserving of acclaim for making the very most of what they have to work with. Mortensen, in particular, is given the all-too familiar role of a brash Italian American gangster type with a gargantuan appetite (in an early scene, he wins a hotdog-eating contest). Despite this, he manages to rise above the stereotype and imbue Tony with likable qualities.

While not exactly original or groundbreaking, Green Book isn’t as banal or objectionable as it could have been. It’s the kind of film that is hard to dislike even if you recognize that it’s shamelessly tugging at familiar heartstrings.

I saw Green Book at Tyneside Cinema, an atmospheric, well-preserved traditional theater in Newcastle, UK where they do an admirable job of recreating the old-fashioned cinema experience. I did grumble at the decidedly modern practice of making you sit through some 20 minutes of commercials before the film but I suppose it’s a challenge for movie theaters to pay the bills these days.