When it was first announced, it would have been easy to underestimate Green Book. A ‘reverse Driving Miss Daisy’ where a black man teaches a white man to not be racist hardly felt like a film for the current moment, a notion compounded by the many behind the scenes controversies that have come to light since its festival circuit debut. Thankfully, Green Book is resoundingly not that, and to dismiss it would be to miss out on one of the most purely enjoyable and lovable films of the year. It handles its themes of race and class with a deft confidence, and is ultimately more concerned with a friendship that altered the perceptions and improved the lives of both men involved.
These two men are genius black musician Doctor Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver/security guard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Donald hires Tony for a concert tour of the Deep South after hearing of his competence as a bouncer, and the pair of them bond on the journey. They both teach each other about life, but not in the trite, hokey ways you might expect. Donald never sits Tony down for any sort of ‘here’s why racism is bad’ speech, and Tony’s gradual eye-opening to the fact is far more believable and affecting.
At the start of the film, Tony is a racist. He’s a white man in his forties living in an all-white Italian neighbourhood in 1962 New York, and his views reflect that. Director Peter Farrelly, who wrote the script along with Tony’s son Nick, doesn’t try to pretend that Tony is any sort of civil rights hero by the end, graduating instead from racist to ‘racially insensitive’, but it still feels like a huge, yet believable, leap for the character. His sense of professional pride means he respects Donald as a boss and doesn’t take any sort of nonsense when a white theatre owner tries to skimp on Donald’s contract.
It’s satisfying and cathartic when Tony sticks up for his friend and employer, and his shock at the sheer fervour and violence of Southern racism is genuine, letting him see the ugly reality of a struggle he would never previously have given a second thought. The tour is a journey of discovery for Donald too. Pathologically averse to fun and describing his ex-wife primarily as ‘poor at grammar’, he learns to enjoy his life and satisfies some of his own locked-away romantic feelings by helping Tony write letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini).
At its heart, Green Book (referring to the pamphlet given to black Americans travelling in the South) is a buddy road movie, and Ali and Mortensen have the necessary chemistry to keep it compelling and entertaining. Farrelly made his name as one of the directors of Dumb and Dumber, so the fact that the script is very funny is hardly a surprise (Tony’s extended family are brilliantly dumb), but Ali and Mortensen are comedic revelations. They each get a goldmine of great lines, play off each other extremely well, and have a comic timing that neither has been allowed to show off before.
Mortensen in particular is incredible, absolutely earning his various awards nominations. He disappears into the role – one of the rare occasions where a physical transformation boosts the performance instead of looking like a stunt – and you fully buy the former King of Gondor as a quick-tempered and even quicker-witted working class enforcer. At his funniest, he’s reminiscent of a taller Frank Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – he’s profane, stubborn, and eats like a cartoon monster. The class disparity between Tony and Donald is cleverly handled and gives their relationship nuance – even though Tony’s invited into the fancy private gatherings after Donald’s shows as a guest, he’s far more comfortable playing dice outside with other (mainly black) drivers.
Green Book is undoubtedly Oscar-baity and formulaic, but it uses convention as a strength and subverts expectations when it needs to. It’s a simply lovely, un-cynical crowdpleaser, a jovial and often laugh out loud funny ode to friendship that knows exactly what it’s doing.