It’s lonely at the top. This being a cliche doesn’t mean it’s not true. It certainly rings true for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a world-renowned pianist who has achieved the success needed to afford him an apartment atop Carnegie Hall where he lives alone surrounded by works of art from around the globe. By the fall of 1962, Don, once a child prodigy, has utilized his talent to earn wealth, fame, and a level of acceptance from the white gatekeepers of high culture in New York and beyond. But, as we come to learn in Green Book — Peter Farrelly‘s based on a true story drama and recent People’s Choice Audience Award winner at the Toronto International Film Festival — Don has set his sights on a tour that will be no easy endeavor for the accomplished pianist.
Don has decided to embark on a two-month tour through the Deep South. In the 1960s. For this tour, he needs a driver. Enter Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a loud and brash Italian-American bouncer at the Copacabana who is also a committed family man willing to do whatever it takes to provide for his wife and two sons. In this case, “whatever it takes” means embarking on a road trip with Don, who intends to rely on Tony’s tough guy attitude to keep them out of trouble. To guide them through their two-month trip, they are taking “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel book made for African Americans who visit states that have enacted Jim Crow laws.
Farrelly, one half of the brotherly duo behind films such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, isn’t a filmmaker one would necessarily expect to take on this dramatic period piece that addresses themes of racism in the American South and the country as a whole. Although Green Book is heavier than the rest of Farrelly’s filmography, he brings in some warmth and light to the story that emphasizes camaraderie and compassion. His direction is competent and conventional. Working with cinematographer Sean Porter, he has rich earth and jewel tones dominate the visually splendid color palette, and these are well suited to the style of the early ’60s setting.
Farrelly’s direction is pleasantly enjoyable, but the highlight of the film is the chemistry between the two leads and their performances that balance each other well. Mortensen is charming in a role that shows off some of his comedic chops with Tony’s larger than life personality while Ali delivers an exceptional and restrained performance. Every choice he makes as an actor is done with the knowledge that Don is an overly cautious man who has learned how to hold himself to earn respect. Don has only gotten as far as he has because he doesn’t show emotions on his face even when directly confronted with racist vitriol. As the tour progresses, Ali’s subtle gestures communicate that, slowly but surely, his experiences are wearing on him.
Green Book doesn’t take on racism with a confrontational approach the way recent films such as BlacKkKlansman or Sorry To Bother You do, and the argument can (and surely will) be made that Farrelly’s film aims to placate rather than challenge white audiences. It’s difficult to watch Green Book and not imagine the reception that will inevitably label the film as being Oscar bait. After all, this is a feel-good movie that follows Tony — a man who may not be unabashedly racist at the start of the film but who still harbors prejudiced ideas — as he grows through learning more about Don and his experiences as a black man in America. The easy criticism is that this is another safe and superficial Oscar-bait movie about a white man learning that racism is bad.
But to dismiss Green Book on that basis sells the film short. Though the script can be heavy-handed at times, Ali’s nuanced performance ensures that Don is complex and layered. The best scenes in Green Book are those that center on Don’s aims to be accepted by a white high society that loves him for his musical ability but will openly express their racist beliefs the second he steps off the stage. Don embarks on his tour believing that his exceptional talent and commitment to his craft will offer those he encounters an opportunity to see African Americans in a different light. It’s a somewhat romantic notion and the film excels when demonstrating how Don grapples with the fact that this idea won’t necessarily work in practice.
Don’s success allows him to live comfortably in New York, but when the tour necessitates him leaving his familiar surroundings, he is forced to confront the isolation he experiences. These challenging circumstances allow his friendship with Tony to develop and for the film to emphasize the necessity of empathy and connection — themes that are familiar and perhaps cliched but in the hands of two excellent actors who handle the material skillfully, they allow for genuinely touching moments.
The buzzword for films in 2018 is “relevant.” It often feels like it’s not enough for a movie to address a social issue — especially in a story set in the past — unless it beats us over the head with reminders that its themes are still prevalent in our society. Refreshingly, Green Book appears content to be a film about 1962. This isn’t to say that the issues concerning racism it addresses are not applicable to our current moment. They are. But the film doesn’t try to be gratingly clever by reminding you of this. There are no heavy-handed quips foreshadowing Trump’s America. Green Book is inevitably conscious of its relevancy, but it’s also wisely aware that it doesn’t need to incessantly and unsubtly hammer this point home.
As one of Don’s bandmates explains to Tony regarding the question of why Don would venture into the Deep South and potentially put himself in harm’s way, “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” Green Book may not be revolutionary, and it does often play it safe when it could have dug deeper into its themes, but this is a movie that champions courage and does it well. As far as Oscar bait goes, there could certainly be worse front-runners than this smart and heartwarming film.