Green Book movie director: Peter Farrelly
Green Book movie cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardinelli
Green Book movie: 4 stars
Victor Hugo Green posited his Green Book as ‘Vacation Without Aggravation’. It says something of the times that this thin volume, listing out places that Blacks on the road could stay at or dine in through the American South, till the 60s, is to be accepted “without aggravation”.
With this book in hand, Tony (Mortensen) is hired to drive his concert pianist Black boss, Don Shirley (Ali), across the south as the latter makes halts for performing. There is a realisation, on both sides, that the task could be dangerous, which is where Tony’s bouncer skills come handy.
But for the fact that this film is inspired by real events, the circumstances under which Tony and Don meet would seem contrived. Tony, who struggles to support his wife and two kids somehow, picking up small jobs here and there, carries his own biases, and it’s only Don’s attractive offer that makes him agree.
Farrelly, more known for loud comedies such as There’s Something about Mary and Dumb and Dumber, brings his touch of humour to the interactions between the poor White Italian driver, and his posh Black boss. But essentially Green Book is a character study of two men who couldn’t be more different from each other, and the friendship they strike. It explores the many ways one can be an outsider, and does well in putting Tony and Don on a more equal footing than first glances would presume.
Therein lie both the strength and weakness of Green Book. Neither Don and Tony are the broad-stroke characters one expects, surprising us in the layers they reveal. But in avoiding those narrow corners into which being White or being Black would box them otherwise into, is the film also taking the easier path, making ugly truths more digestible?
The film also puts Don repetitively in situations that are almost textbook racism — the restaurant that won’t admit him, the tailoring shop that won’t cater to him, the policemen who will be cruel, the drunk men at the bar who beat him up — while brushing away the uphill climb that would have got him to that piano seat.
It’s easy to forget all this though watching Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in action, and also Linda Cardinelli in the brief role of Tony’s wife. Ali is quietly dignified in his role of a man who has seen too much, and it’s the one quality that lets Don put up with what comes his way — as he tells Tony. Don is a man who has taught himself to be as removed from his origins as he can get, and this shows every bit, from how he dresses to how he daintily eats.
But it’s Mortensen who, even in his more one-dimensional role, never ceases to astonish. As he immerses himself in the role of the slightly paunchy, mostly unkempt, always munching, straight-arrow family man, with taught definitions of what is right but who knows a wrong when he sees one, Mortensen turns in a career-defining performance.