Cinematic Releases: Green Book (2018) - Reviewed

Much has been made of this 2018 People’s Choice Award winner which is quickly making the rounds among film festivals copping nearly all the top awards including Best Actor Viggo Mortensen who himself nearly dragged the picture and its award chances into hot water over some off-color comments he made at a press conference regarding the film’s look at 1960s southern racism.  Some outright have dubbed the semi-autobiographical dramedy about the musical concert tour Jamaican classical pianist Don Shirley (Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) and New York bouncer turned chauffeur and bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) make through the Deep South as an inverse Driving Miss Daisy. 

A film which seems to be positing itself as both a formulaic crowd pleaser driven by the performances of the two leads as well as drawing the ire of cynics finding ample room to hate it sight unseen, Green Book draws its title from Victor Hugo Green’s infamous The Negro Motorist Green Book designed for African-American roadtrippers during the era of Jim Crow segregationist laws and defines the picture’s timeline.  While the film is garnering equal amounts of applause and boos in critical circles, with many praising Mortensen and Ali’s acting and comic timing, few have pointed to this topical dramedy as sporting Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary co-director Peter Farrelly in his first dramatic film.  Arguably Farrelly’s attachment to the project makes this the strangest pairing of serious minded material and an otherwise screwball comedy driven auteur since Jerry Zucker was hired to direct Ghost!

Watching Green Book feels like a typical Oscar bait film with ounces of Farrelly’s trademark gross out gags seeping into scenes that threaten to take viewers out of the movie.  A film with little restraint or subtlety and a great deal of Capital-A acted monologues, Green Book manages to work primarily due to the way Mortensen and Ali play off of one another.  Broken up into episodes marking each pit stop the pianist and his driver make throughout the southern region, the frequently funny and occasionally tense banter between the unlikely duo is where the film shines.  Mortensen has been out of the limelight for a while and it’s nice to see him step back into the spotlight once again, speaking multiple languages at some points that will remind viewers of his splendid turn in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.  Oscar winner Ali of course provides a terrific counterpoint to Mortensen with the two standing up for one another and learning more about themselves than they initially realized along the way.

While a true story passed on by son Nick Vallelonga’s screenplay whom himself spoke heavily to the film’s authenticity, Green Book doesn’t break new ground or stray as far from Peter Farrelly’s previous toilet humor shenanigans as he would like audiences to think.  And yet despite going down familiar road, the performances provide enough dynamo and entertainment value to keep viewers interested while offering up its own perspective on the country’s segregated past.  For my money I was entertained by this otherwise heartwarming story of friendship transcending prejudices at the time and it does have the power to tickle you pink.  More than anything, it’s an actor’s film which proves you can have a good story true to life elevated entirely by the people starring in it.

- Andrew Kotwicki