Movie Review: Terrific Leads Elevate ‘Green Book’, A Feel-Good Road Movie About Racial Prejudice

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali play Laurel & Hardy stuck in a moving car.

Green Book (PG13)

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

Directed by Peter Farrelly

A crude, bigoted white man, Frank Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Lord of the Ring’s Viggo Mortensen), is hired by a record company to drive a cultured, aloof black man, Dr Don Shirley (Moonlight's Mahershala Ali), from New York to the forbidding Deep South states of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, etc.

It's kinda like Aragorn driving Arrogant in this predictable but enjoyable crowd-pleaser Green Book, which is up for five Oscars next month, including Best Picture. Although due to the superficial and basically benign portrayal of racial prejudice here, audiences in America probably see this comedy-drama differently.

Shirley, a renowned pianist, is scheduled to give a series of performances at various stops along the way. Vallelonga, an out-of-work nightclub bouncer who punches people and balks at black repairmen drinking out of the glasses in his home, is selected to be his driver, valet, bodyguard and slob-who-teaches-him-the-joy-of-gobbling-up-fried-chicken.

The talkative, rascally thug tells the restrained, scholarly doc that since they're already in Kentucky, hey, they just gotta eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, right? Which makes the white guy behave, by conventional standards, more like a black person here while the black dude seems to act more like a white man.

The audience is tickled by many funny scenes like this where the high-crass driver and the high-class passenger — polar opposites from skin tones to music tones — banter and ham up their reverse-order cultural differences like Laurel and Hardy stuck in a moving car. The black guy speaking with perfect diction loves white classical music; the white fella spouting an uncouth Bronx accent digs black soul.

“Aretha, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, c'mon doc, these are your people,” the Italian-American tries to draw out the African-American's long-submerged heritage. “My world is way blacker than yours,” he correctly argues as, along the journey, the musician's virtuoso playing starts to tame his savage beast and his oafish letters to his wise wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) turn into amazing romantic prose with the pianist's help.

This whole thing looks like Driving Mr Dainty as the disciplined Shirley sits tidily in the back seat with a blanket wrapped around his legs like he's some kind of snooty exotic king. It sounds pretty fake and incredible. But this deal — directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly brothers who helmed Dumb And Dumber and There's Something About Mary —actually happened. Co-scriptwriter Nick Vallelonga is the son of the real Frank V who really did drive the real Doc Shirley on a two-month tour across America in the early 1960s.

So, basically, you couldn't get a road trip that goes in a straighter line than Green Book here. That, by the way, is the title of an old travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book, for African-Americans to help them find motels, restaurants and places that would accept them for “a vacation without aggravation”.

Now, I mean this straight line literally because the car — a gorgeous turquoise Cadillac — cruises down mostly long flat roads from the liberal north to the red-meat south as though it's in an old-fashioned car commercial. 

I also mean this spiritually because this flick is like a travelling slideshow of sorts as the scenery, weather and attitudes of the folks encountered along the route transform noticeably and menacingly in sync with the experiences of its two very likeable Oscar-nominated leads heading in the opposite direction. 

The further south they go, the harder it is for Shirley to be treated fairly, the more Vallelonga's eyes are opened, and the closer the pair's common humanity converge.

This engaging film has got the comfy allure of a cozy, broken-in back seat despite the unpleasant brushes with bigots from bar goons to redneck cops to ostensibly refined southern gentlemen who direct people who don't look like their own kind to rundown segregated toilets. 

In other words, Green Book actually makes racism almost — dare I say this — fun to encounter due to its winsome twosome, with each bad incident handled as a passing moment mostly to be put aside before the next one comes as their adventure deepens into the rough south.

Essentially, as the country changes racially before their eyes, their interracial relationship changes inside their hearts. Vallelonga with his white privilege of bending the rules and getting away with it begins to understand that Shirley needs those rules to work in order for him, a coloured man, to survive.

Some US critics have described Green Book as a misleading and unchallenging guilty pleasure — basically Racism Lite — because it makes both blatant and casual discrimination seem too easily surmountable with two such distractingly appealing stars in the forefront. 

Would this be a harder, grittier and a lot more realistic examination of racial hatred if it weren't them? This seems like a movie made by contrite white folks for contrite white folks.

 Indeed, the family of the late Shirley disputes this dramatisation here, claiming that the real Shirley never considered Vallelonga — both men died in 2013 — a friend but more like an employee.

But what lifts Green Book into its popular mass-appeal position is exactly this terrific pairing. It's much better to have more people, circa these divisive times, know this tale about racial prejudice being overcome by feel-good unity than fewer.

Mortensen has the showier, shallower role, playing up his stereotype to the comical extreme of a bigot who doesn't even know he's bigoted with such boorish charm you forget that the guy is actually a thoughtful, artistic man who speaks multiple languages in real life.

Ali, however, has the meatier and more meaningful part. His Dr Shirley is a complex creature who is stranded in the middle of two conflicting worlds — he's not black enough to be a black man and not white enough to ever be accepted fully by white society.

The captivating Ali, an Oscar winner in hot demand now (Alita: Battle Angel, TV's True Detective), provides the compelling grey in this tussle between black and white. “You can do better, Mr Vallelonga,” he exhorts his inchoate driver in the confines of their car as he contemplates his own limitations imposed by a wider hostile reality outside.

It's a paradox in the deep south of a person which makes Green Book totally worth watching. (****)

Photo: Shaw Organisation 

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