This week, I had the distinct pleasure of watching a charming movie about an unlikely friendship formed across racial lines via the roles of chauffeur and passenger. No, it wasn’t Driving Miss Daisy. That was 30 years ago. Also, this film isn’t a pandering piece of maudlin dreck (okay, it’s not that bad, and it won Best Picture for good reason, but it was cheesy and overly sentimental). No, instead, we have Green Book, an endlessly charming crowd-pleaser, full of wit and relevance in today’s sociopolitical culture, anchored by a leading duo that plays off each other perfectly, and helmed by half of an unlikely directing pair.
Peter Farrelly, along with his brother Bobby, are masters of comedy, with a focus on raunchy jokes, physical humor, and athlete cameos. Among their accomplishments are comedy classics like There’s Something About Mary and Stuck on You. Peter alone has only done two projects until now, and it’s a tale of extremes. He was the director of Dumb and Dumber, which gets more appreciated with every passing year (the sequel, not so much). On the flip side, he directed two segments of Movie 43, for which he shared the Razzie for Worst Director.
So it’s a bit of surprise to have him behind the camera for such a great film. Green Book made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award. The film has been something of a darling on the festival circuit, as it’s won audience prizes in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Virginia, Mill Valley, and Middleburg. It also won Best Film honors at the Twin Cities Festival as well as Boston.
Despite that, Farrelly films the lead dynamic with a tight, intimate frame that could almost be reduced to 4:3 ratio and still get the point across. Very little happens on the periphery, the car shuttling the main actors around the country an isolated pod from the tensions of the world into which they continue to dive.
The film’s title comes from a guidebook used by minorities in the mid-20th century to find friendly territory in the Deep South. Set in 1962, full desegregation was still a few years away, and there were several hostile areas, and that’s where Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali as musician Dr. Donald Shirley has decided to perform. Shuttling him around is Frank Vallelonga, a New York Italian played with a manic joy by Viggo Mortensen, gaining 50 pounds for the role and looking like Joe Pesci in the mid-90s.
Frank, known to his friends and family as “Tony Lip,” (and addressed as such throughout the film) is a nightclub bouncer and all-around hustler, willing to go the extra mile to make inroads with all the big players, including organized crime. He doesn’t care who he insults, because a) he only interferes when honor codes have already been broken, so he knows that ultimately there will be no consequences; b) he can work those insults into bigger and better opportunities; and c) for the most part, his insular Italian community knows that his heart’s in the right place, and they all rip on each other anyway.
After an incident at the Copacabana, the club is closed for the holiday season for “renovations.” As such, Tony needs a job during the hiatus to pay rent, to say nothing about Christmas gifts for his wife (Linda Cardellini) and his two sons (one of whom, Nick, co-wrote the film with Farrelly and Bryan Hayes Currie). He gets word that a doctor needs a personal driver, so he goes in for an interview… to Carnegie Hall. In a grand apartment above the theatre lives Dr. Shirley, a man so worldly that he has artifacts from around the globe and sits on a literal throne, so that he may tower over the people he interviews for the position.
This first meeting sets the dynamic up brilliantly, even if it is obvious. Whereas Driving Miss Daisy had a friendly, if uncomfortable dynamic between an old white lady and a black chauffeur, here Green Book throws that thing down, flips it, and reverses it, with the highly sophisticated Dr. Shirley making demands of Tony as part of the interview process. He doesn’t just want a driver, he wants a valet, a personal servant for his next tour (he already has an in-home butler in the form of character actor Iqbal Theba).
But unlike Morgan Freeman’s Hoke to Jessica Tandy’s Daisy, Tony has no interest in being subservient. He states firmly that he will drive and keep Dr. Shirley safe, but that’s it. He won’t iron shirts, or do laundry, or anything else. In Driving Miss Daisy, the roles of boss and employee are always firmly locked, despite the budding friendship. Here, Tony makes it very clear that while he will be an employee, he will be a well paid one, and he won’t degrade himself for money. His own racism aside (in an early scene he sees two black handymen working in his apartment, and after they leave he surreptitiously throws away the glasses his wife gave them to drink out of), he is adamant that he be treated as an equal. He may not have Shirley’s education (he was at first incredulous that one could even be a doctor in something other than medicine), but he has his pride. After initially rejecting one another, Shirley hires him on his terms, as the multiple word-of-mouth recommendations were strong enough to overcome his misgivings.
The tour begins smoothly enough, as Tony chauffeurs Dr. Shirley while the other members of his trio (a bassist and cellist played by Dimeter Marinov and Mike Hatton, respectively) travel separately. They play a few gigs in Pennsylvania and the midwest, where Dr. Shirley’s piano styling draws sellout theatre crowds and standing ovations. The worst thing Tony encounters is a stagehand in Indiana who doesn’t think Dr. Shirley is worth the effort to find a Steinway & Sons piano for the performance, which is in Shirley’s contract. Tony gleefully does his best “mook enforcer” impression to scare said stagehand into compliance.
But then the tour takes a “hard left turn” as Dr. Shirley puts it, heading into Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana at various points. Not only does Tony have to drive Donald around, he has to protect him from the very people for whom he’s performing. The racism weighs heavily on Dr. Shirley, but as his cellist Oleg puts it, “He could make three times as much money getting his ass kissed in Brooklyn. He chose this.”
Tony must maintain his composure when tensions rise a couple of times early. Dr. Shirley chastises him for not attending a performance, instead shooting dice with the other, all-black chauffeurs at one private performance. “What’s the difference? Everyone was doing it!” Tony protests. Dr. Shirley responds, “Because unlike them, you had the option to not stay outside!” Similarly, after a performance at an old plantation house, Donald takes an intermission to use the bathroom, but his host insists he use the outhouse, where the rest of his black servants go. Dr. Shirley decides to extend the intermission for a half hour so Tony can drive him back to the hotel to use the facilities rather than suffer the indignity. He later shakes the hands of the same people who presented him with such an insulting choice.
It only gets worse the deeper into the South they go. Tony becomes a voluntary personal bodyguard, protecting Donald from hicks at a bar, racist police, and even more high society bigoted bullshit. What makes it all work from a writing standpoint is that despite the skin tones, nothing is ever truly black and white. For example, Tony bribes policeman (one black, one white) who would persecute Dr. Shirley, which angers him more than the injustice, because Tony “rewarded” their behavior, but in doing the tour at all, Dr. Shirley is doing the same thing, only the money changing hands is in his favor.
The major nuance is in Dr. Shirley’s internal conflict. Over the course of the film, Tony introduces him via the car radio to musicians like Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. While in Kentucky, Tony buys some KFC just for novelty’s sake, and convinces Dr. Shirley to try it, as he’s never eaten fried chicken before. While Tony lives up to any number of Italian-American stereotypes, Dr. Shirley eschews them all, leaving Tony to repeatedly observe that there are times when he might be “more black” than Donald. It goes back to the age old question in entertainment about what the “right” way might be to depict black people, or even if such a thing exists. It’s also the source of many of Dr. Shirley’s personal vices (particularly alcohol), because he deals with the consequences of being black without ever really getting to identify with his family and community. He doesn’t hate Little Richard, he just doesn’t care, because he’s performing his own style of music. He doesn’t eat fried chicken because it’s a stereotype, he just doesn’t like eating with his hands and getting greasy fingers. But he still has to deal with the insult of being “black, but not really black” because of it all.
On the lighter side, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali really bring out the best in each other, both as performers and within their characters. Through music, food, and a general lust for life, Tony gets Dr. Shirley to climb down from his ebony-and-ivory tower and enjoy the trip when possible. At the same time, Dr. Shirley takes it upon himself to culture Tony a bit, introducing a little morality (Tony takes a polished stone that fell on the ground from a roadside shop, but Dr. Shirley shames him into putting it back), as well as helping Tony write a series of letters to his wife with increasingly purple prose.
But most importantly, the two play off each other so well because the dialogue allows them to cut loose a bit. There’s a lived in wit with everything that makes it feel perfectly natural. The rapport that grows between them feels organic, because it happens at a steady pace over the course of two months, rather than being rushed into the span of a week or stretched out over years, making us wonder about the intervening time. If nothing else, the line where Tony explains to another driver that “virtuoso” is an Italian word that means, “real good” had me in stitches, because it speaks to the basic humanity of his character. The same goes for an inspired scene where Tony and Donald throw chicken bones out the car window, but Donald makes Tony back up to pick up a soda cup, because that bit of littering was a step too far.
This is something of a necessary film in this day and age as well, 50-plus years removed from the real-life tour. Racism has been emboldened over the past few years, and hate crimes are at an all time high. We need a film like this, not just for a bit of feel-good humor and friendship around the holidays (though this movie has it in droves), but also because we have to be reminded of things like basic humanity and decency, and that people don’t fit into preconceived notions (and the ones who do are usually the same ones casting aspersions). Who would have thought the guy who had Cameron Diaz put Ben Stiller’s jizz in her hair would be the one to do it?
Now, this film is very likely to be pushed for major awards, especially given the slew of honors it’s already gotten from various festivals. I decided not to do a categorical breakdowns this time, mostly because I don’t think it’ll be a major competitor when the Oscars roll around. I’m sure it can nab a few nominations, particularly for the screenplay and the two lead performances (though seriously, how do you decide who’s the Lead Actor and who’s the Supporting Actor here?), and maybe even for Best Picture given the expanded field. I just don’t see where the film makes a case to reasonably win anything. I’d be surprised (most likely pleasantly) if it did, but given patterns I’ve seen over the last few years, I don’t see it happening. That said, you should still take the time to see it, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again, and in this case, I kind of hope I am wrong.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should I have done a breakdown for the Oscars here? Would you intentionally gain 50 pounds for a film role? Let me know!