“It takes courage to change people’s hearts” runs the central theme (and killer third act quote) of Green Book, a story inspired by true life events which tells the tale of black musician Doctor Don Shirley touring the American south when racism was rife in the 1960s with his Italian-American driver Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga.
Turns out, in this case, it takes a dignified and classy performance by Mahershala Ali and a load of fairly schmaltzy but nonetheless effective feel-good cliches to hit at the heart-strings in a way that’s both moving and manipulative at the same time.
Green Book has snapped up a range of awards and nominations, as well as several criticisms and controversies relating to how true the story is, whether the film sidelines Shirley to make the story about Vallelonga’s arc, and whether it skirts over the importance and history of The Negro Motorist Green Book of the title, a guide book of restaurants and accommodation friendly to black people.
Putting aside the politics, we’re still not convinced this is the uplifting masterpiece of our times deserving all the awards buzz. But you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to find this Christmas-set bromance at least somewhat touching.
Doctor Don Shirley was a classically trained pianist who according to the film had to settle for playing jazz and standards to maintain a successful career in music venues in New York. But Shirley wanted to tour the deep South during the era of Jim Crow laws.
Vallelonga was a nightclub bouncer who found himself out of work when his club shuts for a refurb and ends up (reluctantly) agreeing to travel with Shirley as a driver, valet and bodyguard.
Mortensen plays Vallelonga as corporeal and crass, constantly filling his face, a sort of unrefined slob in contrast to the posh, finickity and up-tight Shirley. Green Book is an odd-couple comedy and while director Peter Farrelly is best known for slapstick fare such as Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, appropriately Green Book is much gentler in tone. It’s also not hilarious, so when we say ‘comedy’ don’t expect to be rolling in the aisles.
Green Book establishes Vallelonga as an out and out racist at the start of the film, with the character binning the glasses that two black maintenance men were drinking from in his house, where his considerably less bigoted wife (Linda Cardellini) has served them Lemonade. But as Vallelonga and Shirley travel through the South, Vallelonga’s prejudice diminshes as his awareness quickly grows – it’s a slightly uncomfortable shift over an apparently very short period of time that the movie brushes over.
Green Book is predictable, taking the pair on a road trip of racism – in one town they won’t let Shirley shop, in the next he can’t use the ‘white’ bathroom, in the next he’s denied access to the restaurant etc. And the focus is definitely on Vallelonga’s arc of understanding and not Shirley’s point of view or act of bravery in choosing to make the tour in the first place (at least not until act three) – hardly surprising perhaps since the screenplay was co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick. Shirley’s sexuality is skirted over via just one scene, too, in a way that seems to say ‘this isn’t that movie’, while Cardellini is great but underused and the other women in the film are largely confined to nagging wife roles.
Still, excellent, nuanced performances from both leads elevate the movie above its good natured but rather bog-standard, neatly packaged beats and when the third act comes around it’s hard not to feel deeply for both characters. As a well made, sweet, story of unlikely friendship, Green Book is as warm, palatable and enjoyable as the fried chicken Vallelonga hungrily devours as he’s driving, much to Shirley’s initial distaste. Just don’t expect too much to chew on afterwards.
Green Book is in UK cinemas now.