To say we live in complicated times is perhaps an oversimplification.
It’s frightening to think how far we came (past tense) and how far we’ve regressed when it comes to something like social equality. Many people would agree that Western, perhaps even Global culture has been regressing when it comes to acceptance and racial relations.
To say that Green Book, a story about racial relations and acceptance (or lack thereof) is strangely topical, is also an oversimplification. What might be more strange however, isn’t the timing of the film’s release, or the fact that a story taking place in early 1960’s America is contemporary, is the fact that the latest cinematic voice, the newest artist to reintroduce concepts like love and acceptance (concepts Mortensen said are “lost track of a lot these days” in the Q & A session after my TIFF screening of the film) …is Peter Farrelly. Yes, that Peter Farrelly; the one who countless times teamed up with his brother to bring us trendy comedy classics like Dumb & Dumber, Me Myself & Irene, and There’s Something About Mary.
Green Book follows the story of a working class Italian-American, Tony Lip (Viggo Moretensen) who, after losing work as a bouncer, finds himself working for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American classical pianist on tour through the deep South of 1960’s America. The two are the archetypal odd-couple, with Dr. Shirley being scholarly, fastidious and composed and Tony being what would seem to be an Italian-American cinematic stereotype; tough, loud, and brash.
While we may not associate either of the Farrelly brothers with drama, audiences lately haven’t associated them with comedy either. Recent releases such as Dumb & Dumber To, The Three Stooges, Hall Pass, even as far back as Fever Pitch had neither audiences nor critics waiting for the next Farrelly project. That changed for me personally when I discovered Green Book, and discovered that not only is Peter turning to more dramatic subject matter, but that his brother isn’t a part of the project at all.
“My answer was always ‘when it happens’. I never planned what was going to be next, it was just a thing the universe brought you, dropped in your lap, it would be like planning when you’re going to fall in love, you never know when it’s going to happen” Farrelly told the audience at TIFF that he didn’t actively seek out this project, it came up very organically, and that when he heard co-writer Brian Hayes Currie talk about the film, he knew it was a ‘home-run’ idea.
He might be right. About everything. The fact that this idea came his way and just felt, the timing, his background; this film would not be the same without Farrelly’s approach. That may seem self-explanatory, but what I’m addressing is the fact that this film needed the touch of a comedic filmmaker, or at least this specific comedic filmmaker. Within he and his brothers’ specific niche of comedy, there was something that was always enjoyable about it, even if the comedy itself, was not. They knew about human connection.
The Farrelly brothers always, without fail, had a shmaltzy moment of love, one way or another. Even when dealing with Lloyd and Harry in Dumb & Dumber, when dealing with caricatures of human beings, there is a bond there, there is a love. So imagine if suddenly Peter Farrelly starting taking things seriously? When a filmmaker understands sentiment and human connection, then it’s not such a stretch to make the jump to drama.
Farrelly’s influence on the mood of the film is fairly obvious. He’s never been a subtle filmmaker, and the film does lack significant drama. After my viewing of the film I wouldn’t even categorize it as a drama, because, while there may be hurdles the characters have to overcome, it seems to be a very light-hearted story. Arguably, the most lighthearted version of an extremely heavy subject matter. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, dramatically speaking, but nothing too heavy ever came. Every time there is something even remotely dramatic, the two characters get out of it with relative ease. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but some might see this as too lighthearted, and not truly dealing with the reality of racial segregation and prejudice. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, as it’s the tone of the film all three writers and Farrelly were going for, but considering the subject matter, this may actually anger audience members. The title Green Book refers to a ‘travel guide’ of sorts for African-Americans of that time. Realistically though, it was more of a ‘survival-guide’, as it informed those families where it was safe to travel, what restaurants they were permitted to eat in, and the ‘colored only’ locations to lodge. For many families, the Green Book has significant personal meaning.
What I am suggesting, is that is merely subtext, despite what they chose to be the title. The story is really about our shared humanity despite differences, and while these characters do reinforce some stereotypes, it shatters others. Mahershala and Mortensen create characters that are part caricature, part inspiration, but regardless of how you view them, it works. The two are so well-balanced, it’s difficult to say if either of them is truly the lead. That’s of the utmost importance, as this unlikely friendship is what inspired the film and drives the story.
I never feel like I am watching Mahershala Ali acting, as… to be honest… I don’t really know who Mahershala Ali is. (That is a testament to his acting, not a comment on the fact he and I don’t hang out in the same social circles). However, his role as Dr. Shirley is drastically different than anything I’ve seen him do before. His sense of who the character is, his mannerisms, his diction, even his inner thought process become clear through Ali’s performance. Since this is a more comedic film in tone, I have to also compliment Ali’s sense of timing. The character is reserved for the majority of the film, and being a straight man in a comedic duo is not easy, but Ali finds a brilliant balance of drama and comedy. It’s another performance, that while perhaps not award worthy, he will assuredly be remembered for.
Green Book will also be remembered. The balance it finds within small sub-genres of cinema is carefully crafted; part road-trip buddy movie, part period piece, part social commentary, but all enjoyable. It may not spark serious conversation between audience members. It certainly won’t solve the social inequality and hatred that plagues many parts of the world still to this day. It does, however, serve as a reminder of the core concepts it successfully portrays. Mortensen when addressing the crowd put it best: “There’s something very profound there that we lose track of. These days, we lose track of it a lot. And that is anybody has the right to understand or appreciate other people… you can respect each other …you can listen to each other.”
So if you’ll indulge Mortensen’s teachings, listen to me… go see Green Book.
Toronto International Film Festival Review: Green Book
Production Companies: DreamWorks Pictures, Participant Media, Amblin Partners
Director: Peter Farrelly
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Don Stark, Linda Cardellini
Rated PG-13, 130 Min
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