By Vincent Abbatecola
Peter Farrelly is a writer-director who has made a name for himself making comedies with his brother, Bobby, throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, with two of their most notable films being 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber” and 1998s “There’s Something About Mary.” With credits like these, you wouldn’t expect either of the Farrelly brothers to tackle heartwarming subject matter.
For Peter’s newest movie, which is a solo outing, he does. In the biographical comedy-drama, “Green Book,” he delivers a heartfelt and surprisingly funny road movie that’s made memorable by a spirited on-screen bond between its two leads.
In the early 1960s, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer at a New York nightclub. When the club closes for renovations and Tony is out of a job, he picks up work as a chauffeur for pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Frank is tasked with driving Don on a tour of performances throughout the Deep South with the help of a Green Book, a segregation-era travel guide that helps African-Americans avoid the hostility of whites-only establishments.
Mortensen gives a terrific performance as a tough-as-nails, street-smart individual who knows how to handle any person or situation that he encounters. It’s a comedic performance where Mortensen’s finest moments come from his character trying to learn about Don and establish a friendship with him. From his New York accent to the way that he walks, Mortensen comes across as a true Bronx native. This role allows us to see a different side of Mortensen’s acting abilities, and his emotional and humorous transition from a man who’s just doing his job to a man who begins to understand Don’s plight makes for a compelling transformation of his character. Mortensen couldn’t be more enjoyable to watch, and with his grasp on the character, you see him sink into Frank’s New York persona as Mortensen creates one of the most entertaining movie characters of the year.
Ali provides his character with an aura of stateliness, exemplifying someone who approaches his craft with the utmost seriousness. Ali shows how Don won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of him doing what he loves, and Ali displays Don’s passion for music as the character becomes lost in his performances, making it seem like there isn’t anything else in the world besides him and his piano during those moments.
One of the most poignant factors of Ali’s role is how Don is faced with being shunned from both whites and African-Americans. The latter shun him because of his education and talents and thinking that Don thinks that he’s better than them, and the former shun him because of his race. Ali shows the pain of someone who thinks that he doesn’t belong anywhere, only seeming to feel comfortable whenever he’s on stage. Because of this, you feel elated when he begins to open up to Tony and confide in his new friend.
An intriguing aspect of Ali’s character is how his music helps him deal with his encounters with racism. This is exemplified in a scene where, after he’s denied the chance to try on a suit at a shop in Georgia, the film then cuts right to his next performance. The camera zooms in on Don’s face as he plays on the piano with an extra vigor this time around Here, it doesn’t seem like any of the other concert performances that we saw from Don because at this moment, he shows the anger within his facial expressions and we see that Don’s using his music as an outlet to express that frustration.
Although the narrative unfolds like a typical crowd-pleaser for the most part, the screenplay by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (Frank’s son) gives us an in-depth view of Frank and Don’s friendship and provides an abundance of laughs and drama. The story takes its time in developing the bond between the two lead characters, giving us humorous interactions and then leading into more dramatic territory as the two begin to understand each other. Despite the drama of the film, the story still manages to make us laugh when the time is right. The connection that Frank and Don build is something special because, once the two hit the road, the narrative is all about them, and nobody else, allowing us to see every stop along their journey. With the witty, emotional, and insightful conversations that the two of them share, we’re given a full look into these characters’ minds as they embark on this life-changing journey.
Given the subject matter with which Farrelly has worked in the past, its remarkable how well he handles such tug-at-the-heartstrings material. This is a movie with a lot of tenderness and laughs, but Farrelly knows that the story he’s telling still has to show the hardships that Don faces for being an African-American during the film’s time period. Through all of this, Farrelly’s able to balance the drama and humor, with the latter feeling organic and never overstaying its welcome when it comes time to shift the focus to the hostility that Tony and Don face when they’re in the South. This could have proven difficult for Farrelly, due to his extensive work in comedies, but he’s able to pull off the tonal shifts with an impressive dexterity.
“Green Book” is a charmer of a movie that delights as much as it moves. It treats you to the story of a friendship that overcomes the harsh realities in which it finds itself and results in a film with a road you won’t be able to resist traveling.