THIS MARVELLOUS MOVIE deftly pulls off an incredible sleight of hand. This is thanks to some superb writing by Peter Farrelly (who also directed) and Brian Currie (from a memoir by Nick Vallelonga) and the tremendous chemistry between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. The (reality based) story set in the early 60’s, pairs Tony Vallelonga aka TonyLip, a casually racist Italian bruiser (Mortensen) with Dr. Don Shirley, a fastidious Black pianist (Ali). Tony has been employed by Dr. Shirley’s record company to chauffeur him around (and protect him) as he and his trio meander down into the segregationist South performing to sell out and increasingly racist audiences. The Green Book refers to the guide to the hotels Black people were allowed to stay in.
This is buddy movie heaven. Two opposites thrown together to snipe at each other and eventually bring out the best of each other, in a typical opposites-attract Hollywood bromance.
It shouldn’t work. We can guess at the arc of the story from the very beginning (slyly at the Copacabana where bouncer Tony beats up a drunk while the resident MC/crooner belts out “That Old Black Magic”. Get it?). We know somehow Shirley’s erudition will help smooth Tony’s (very) rough edges. We know his music will sooth Tony’s savage beast; and we know Tony’s community rootedness will reintegrate Shirley into his own community.
The movie transforms these clichéd tropes into something quite surprisingly up-lifting. It works because at the thematic level, it’s a nuanced exploration of racial identity and belonging, largely seen through the eyes of the two protagonists. Tony boasts that he’s lived in and belongs to the same neighbourhood that his parents and their parents lived in. He’s almost the clichéd Italian-American: the spaghetti eating, family-loving, wise-guy hobnobbing, Italian-speaking expression of his community. He has no doubt whatsoever of his sense of self; his identity.
Shirley is the opposite. He has no community. He belongs nowhere. He’s a haunted, depressed, highly controlled, lonely man who doesn’t identify Black. And can’t identify White. In one telling scene, he sits at the back of his limo, nattily dressed in his perfectly fitting suit and looks out with a mix of puzzlement and perhaps shame at the poor, ill-shod, Black cotton pickers in the fields across the way. They regard him with curiosity and contempt as if he’s some alien being. Here’s the brilliant musician unfamiliar with the Black music of his time (Little Richard, Aretha Franklyn etc).
He’s not even straight.
Unlike Tony, there’s no community in which Shirley can possibly fit. Even the music he so brilliantly plays (a sort of high class jazz) isn’t the music he’d rather play: Handel and Liszt better suite his temperament and creative spirit (But who wants to hear that?).
Identity is belonging. Without it, you’re little more than a nowhere man.
Beyond this intellectual dimension, the two characters – in no small part due to the superb performances of Mahershala Ali, and especially the weight-gained Viggo Mortensen – come across as engagingly real. Their bond feels like the genuine thing, not an artificial construct. Tony is a quick-tempered thug. But he’s also a loving husband and father; an essentially decent and open-minded person. We witness his early racism slip away the more he sees beyond the race to the person. This in direct contrast with Shirley’s White Southern audiences, who only ever see a Black entertainer. The classical pianist tolerated as an exotic circus performer.
Shirley meanwhile, firmly locked in the castle of his skin, hides his loneliness and frailty beneath a mask of patronising hauteur, crisp diction and Scotch.
The arc of the narrative traces his inner journey as he slowly discovers his own racial identity, and, through Tony, an embryonic sense of belonging.
There are some scenes that border on the corny (He’s reluctantly introduced to KFC by Tony; and then re-introduced to fried chicken by one of his Southern White hosts who deems it appropriately ethnic. Shirley is disdainful of this kind of racist type casting; but to Tony, food is culture. Be proud)
The movie is funny, insightful and often, without schmaltz, quite heart tugging. It’s been accused of over-simplifying the complex issue of US race relations (and indeed, it would be interesting to imagine the same story directed by a Black director). But its central focus -retain your dignity; never resort to violence- offers the refreshing perspective of race relations seen not through the perspective of politics but through that of art’s intimate, healing touch.
The result is something that’s magical and never maudlin. It’s a tough balancing act, sensitively finessed by director Farrelly, whose past successes (The Three Stooges, There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) were less, let’s say, nuanced.
GREEN BOOK. Dir/Written: Peter Farrelly. Co-Writer: Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga. With: Viggo Mortensen, Maherslhala Ali, Linda Cardellini (Avengers, Age of Ultron). Cinematographer: Sean Porter (Green Room), Production Designer: Tim Galvin (The Butler), Composer: Kris BowersDear White People; TV)