Director: Peter Farrelly
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
Release date: Out now
Reviewer: Dan Cooper
The archetype of the Italian-American wise guy, quick with his fists and even quicker with his mouth, is one of the few remaining bastions of masculinity in a Hollywood which long ago punctured the outmoded myth of the war hero and the cowboy. Skin-deep satires aside, the enduring nature of the violent, chauvinistic wise guy has proved stubbornly resistant to wholesale deconstruction, but in Green Book, director Peter Farrelly cleverly uses the wise guy/straightman dynamic to successfully explore notions of masculinity and race in his best film for years.
When Viggo Mortensen’s fast-talking Tony Lip is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a cultured and brilliant African-American pianist played by Mahershala Ali, on a tour from Manhattan to the Deep South in the 60s, all of the contrivances seem poised for a journey into awards season mawkishness. Indeed, many of the beats from an odd-couple road movie are present and correct, including the sometimes-soupy life lessons one would expect to find in a film like this.
But where Green Book triumphs is in the extraordinary deftness of touch with which it handles its material, creating a film that feels innately human while rarely veering into sentimentality. Mortensen and Ali are both wonderful as characters that have become limited by the narrow cultural stratification of 60s American society. As they journey deeper into the bigoted South, the cinematic landscape feels curiously relevant in the wake of BlacKKKlansman’s searing ending, and so the increasing reliance of each character on the other, to help transcend the rigid notions of who they are, becomes vital to providing both the laughs and the joy that the film needs to thrive. Thankfully, Green Book delivers resoundingly in this aspect, including one scene where both men finally find some common ground over a bucket of fried chicken, being one of the best-written and performed scenes of this year, in any movie.
While Green Book takes an approach to its concluding scenes that may not be wholly satisfying for everyone, what is undisputed is that it earns the right to do so, through an enchanting combination of onscreen talent, a wonderful script and a director in Peter Farrelly who, after a decade of comedic oddities, may have pieced together one of the year’s most sublime films. If, to start the year, you’re yearning to revisit some of that festive spirit, you could do a lot worse than Green Book, which reminds us of the holiday season’s most important lesson: what unites us is always stronger than that which would divide us.