Green Book (2018)
Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly. Directed by Peter Farrelly.
The Green Book, I learned early this year, was a directory published in the United States between the 1930 and 1960s, and listed businesses friendly to African Americans. Michael Wilbon, whose parents were from the South, said they didn’t travel home from Chicago without it. I’m disappointed in myself for not being aware of it, but it’s something that kind of hints at why a movie like this still needs to be made in 2018, and it excuses the film’s one major flaw.
Mahershala Ali plays pianist Don Shirley, who embarks on a tour of the Midwest and South with the other musicians in his trio, a white bass player and a white violinist. The record company insists he hire a white driver, someone who can keep trouble away from Shirley on the tour. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Vallelonga, “Tony Lip” to his friends and associates. He’s pretty much a mob-connected goombah whose work history includes “taking care of problems.”
Much of the plot here is predictable in events and tone. If you’re thinking what I thought when I saw the trailer, that this is kind of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, you’re not too far off, and this is the flaw. “Pandering,” “condescending,” and “preachy” came to mind as I tried to figure out my feelings midway through the movie, but none of them really hit the mark. Later, I heard someone refer to it as kind of an After School Special, and that’s it. It feels like it exists to teach me a life lesson.
Yet I just admitted I had no idea the Green Book existed, so how can I blame a film for thinking I should know about it? It doesn’t change my feeling that this tone is a huge flaw, but it softens it a bit.
What really redeems the film is the fantastic acting by Ali and Mortensen. Each is completely unrecognizable, painting his character with a fine brush, as compared to the sledgehammer offered by much of the plot. There is one heavy-handed Don Shirley monologue that in a lesser actor’s hands could be groan-inducing, but is instead heartbreaking. Shoot, even someone like Denzel Washington, who is by no means a lesser actor, would likely elicit groans here. Instead, Ali presents a lifetime of vulnerability and alienation in a short minute to his tough-guy companion and it’s an amazing thing to see.
Give some credit to the writers who, in one very tricky moment, turn Frank Vallelonga into the guy the film wants us to believe he is. “The world is a complicated place,” Franks says, and somehow it’s exactly right for Frank, for Don, and for the audience. A moment of gentle grace in a film that often has trouble finding it.
The acting is so superb that it makes the movie quite a bit better than it should be. The National Board of Review named Green Book the best film of the year. I can’t go that far, but it is the rare movie that rises above its script and becomes something special on the strength of its excellent acting.