Sunday, 10 February 2019

Film Review - Green Book (12A)

Eyes on the road, Tony.
Green Book is one of the big 2019 awards season crowd-pleasers and for good reason. It's a road movie driven by spectacular central performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, where the physical journey is (naturally) a metaphor for the characters' emotional one. Yes it's predictable and too bang-on obvious at some points, with the kind of Oscar-bait premise that has some critics sharpening their knives before they've even watched it. But lay your cynicism aside, because this is one hell of an entertaining ride and a heart-warmer to boot.
The screenplay is written chiefly by Nick Villalonga, real-life son of Mortensen's character, which boosts the movie's 'based on a true story' credentials. Tony Villalonga (aka Tony Lip) is a bouncer at New York's Copacabana night club, until fate sees him out of work and struggling to support his wife and son. A lucrative opportunity comes his way when classical/jazz pianist Dr Don Shirley employs him as driver on a two-month concert tour of the Mid-West and Deep South. But Tony's responsibilities go far beyond the steering wheel, 1960s red-state USA being potentially deadly for the African-American Dr Shirley. (The 'Green Book' of the title was an actual safe-travel guide for people of colour in that era.) Nor is it an easy relationship between the two, with blue-collar chauffeur and cultivated musician clashing on multiple levels.
In one sense Green Book is entirely what you expect. It's a race drama where two disparate characters are pushed together by circumstance and gradually find common ground - a reversed road-movie version of Driving Miss Daisy with every cliche intact. What enables it to transcend all of that is the story's roots in reality and the sheer number of ways in which Tony and Dr Shirley contrast each other. The driver is blunt and boorish with no grain of irony, while also a committed family man and thwarted romantic. The musician meanwhile is cultured and privileged, living more or less in isolation. And on top of that there's the race factor. An early action of Tony's marks him out as a dyed-in-the-wool racist who's driving purely out of financial necessity, while Dr Shirley exists in a limbo between the condescending white patrons for whom he performs and the black community in which he originated. Point is, neither is written or played as an archetype, but as an individual in whom you can totally believe.
The leads have both immersed themselves in their roles too. Mortensen is visibly overweight and sluggish with a thick New York Italian accent (the real-life Tony did go on to act in The Sopranos after all), while Ali (check out his Oscar-winning role in Moonlight for a points of contrast) is all aloof elegance and poise with his cravats and his pencil-thin moustache. Neither seeks to make his character easily likeable - Tony's innate prejudice isn't far from the surface to begin with and the musician's attitude to him is pure snobbery. Yet the chalk-and-cheese duo's interactions are riveting, strikingly funny and never less than authentic. Put simply, you enjoy hanging on with these two on the drive and end up longing for them to connect. And when they do, it's no great revelation, but rather a barely discernible warming to each other, fuelled in some part by the increasingly overt racism encountered as they journey south.
Green Book is a lush travelogue of a movie directed by Farrelly brother Peter (yes, of There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber fame) that troubles the surface of American racism, while never plunging into its murky depths BlacKkKlansman style. While there are troubling moments, it retains its lightness of tone through the burgeoning relationship and humanity of its central pair. The story has been criticised by some as reinforcing a 'white saviour' narrative or one where the black man is tasked with rescuing the white man from his own bigotry, but I don't think it's either of those. This is a whole different narrative - the one about two flawed human beings each turning out better, because they spent time together. A buddy-movie in other words. It's a story that always works when told well - and in Green Book it's told very well indeed.
Gut Reaction: More LOL-ing than during most comedies, and misty eyes in the moments of connection. Yup, it got me pretty good. 

Memorable Moment: The sharing of the fried chicken. 

Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. Had it not been a true story or written well or acted superbly, Green Book might have been cringing. But it was all of the above, and it's bloody brilliant.

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