Going into Green Book I had my reservations. The marketing gave a historical drama vibe in the vein of Selma or Hidden Figures. Yet my idea was completely changed by a clip that seemed more like the Planes, Trains, and Automobiles of the 1960s. Finding out it was directed by Peter Farrelly, half of the team behind Dumb and Dumber, confused me even more. The only thing I was dead-sure about was the acting. With a duo of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, the performances were on lock. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but upon leaving the theater, I’m happy I took the time to see it.
Tony Vallelonga is a rough family man from the Bronx trying to hustle up some money while his usual job, a bouncer at the Copacabana, is out for the season. With Christmas coming up, he gets a call for an open position. The interview is at Carnegie Hall, or rather right above it, where Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American pianist, is looking for drivers to tour through the Deep South. After some classic hero cycle, refusal of the call, Tony finally gives in and the two set out on a road trip for the ages.
As I foretold, the performances are rock solid. Viggo Mortensen’s great comedic timing, accent, and demeanor make him a joy to watch. Mahershala Ali provides the real dramatic juice for this film, expertly telling Dr. Shirley’s story by crossing elegance over to pretension, breaking his civilized facade into deep insecurity. Mortensen and Ali’s relationship is the real highlight of the film. The rest of the cast does well, but ultimately provide nothing especially noteworthy aside from Dolores, Tony’s wife, played by Linda Cardellini. Her strong chemistry with Mortensen evokes great sympathy as she reads his letters and wishes for him to be home in time for Christmas. She wonderfully plays a wife and mother, holding down the home front as Tony and Dr. Shirley keep chugging along.
Technically, the shots are wonderfully composed and executed. The production design is also quite impressive, with multiple exterior shots of streets filled with period-accurate cars, clothing, storefronts, road signs, and so much more. The direction by Peter Farrelly is wonderful. He earns so many great laughs from simple cuts and visuals. It was refreshing to see such intelligently executed comedy in a studio film. Although his previous filmography might suggest otherwise, I feel like no one else could make this film as funny and genuine as he did.
There seems to be an emerging trend in trailers today: period piece dramas led by African-Americans are presented as culturally important and politically minded to appeal to a certain audience yearning to stay relevant and woke. Although many movies do necessitate this avenue of advertising, the downside for such a broad application of this method is that it narrows the perception of African-Americans in film. This movie is not a cliché race drama. It’s a feel-good road trip movie about an odd couple surviving a harsh and unforgiving world by learning to accept and love each other. And boy, it knocks it out the park.
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