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06 Dec 2018

The South in the 1960s: Two Fantastic Stars Redeem a Screenplay That Plays It Too Safe in 'Green Book'

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Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.

One of the directors of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary goes solo for Green Book, his first “serious” feature effort.

Director Peter Farrelly, sans little brother Bobby, gives us a film that’s essentially a remake of Driving Miss Daisy with the roles reversed, starring Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the Academy Award-winning actor from Moonlight (Mahershala Ali). It’s a feel-good movie about race relations that goes light on the grit and heavy on the sentiment.

The film is based on a true story. Mortensen plays Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer at the Copacabana who finds himself temporarily without a job as the club is getting renovated. His next gig installs him as a driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American classical pianist who is touring with a jazz trio in the early 1960s deep South.

This is a road movie, with Tony driving and Don sitting in the back. As they venture south, they talk about fried chicken, Chubby Checker and letter-writing. There is nothing in their dialogue that is remotely original or surprising, but Farrelly wisely has these two guys in the car. Without them, this film would be a total slog. The duo is, at times, fun to watch, even when the movie around them isn’t.

The titular Green Book is a guide for African Americans, listing safe havens where Don can eat and find shelter. The deeper into the South the tour goes, the lousier the accommodations for Don become. A rich man up north, Don is reduced to skeevy rooms and nothing but a bottle of Cutty Sark to get him through the night.

Segregation rears its ugly head as Don tries to do things such as buy a suit or eat in a restaurant where he’s been hired to play. This is where Tony becomes the hero, stepping in for his boss and occasionally cracking a few skulls. Yes, Tony is Dr. Don’s white knight, a man who will learn to love just a little bit more, regardless of the color of somebody’s skin; he may even use a few fewer racial slurs before the credits roll.

The film doesn’t feel like it was made today. It has the sensibility of a movie made somewhere around the late ’80s to mid ’90s. It’s a little too safe and predictable for its own good. A movie about racism should be uglier; this one tries a little too hard to not upset anybody. I have no problem with an optimistic viewpoint and a happy ending, but something about this movie, even though the characters are based on real people, rings a little false and shallow.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to some degree. Mortensen, best known for dramatic and action roles, gets a chance to show off some comedic timing. He also put on more than 40 pounds for the role. That, coupled with a typical Italian accent, makes him OK in the type of role that used to go to the likes of Danny Aiello or the late Dennis Farina.

Mahershala is good as Shirley—so good you’ll wish the script matched the majesty of his work. Seamless special effects make it look like he can play a mean piano. (Kris Bowers, the film’s score composer, is also Ali’s piano double.)

Green Book is the sort of movie that has “Oscar” written all over it, but I won’t be trumpeting it when it’s time for the golden boys to be passed out. The movie is average at best, and I expect a little more heft from a movie with this subject matter.

Green Book is playing at theaters across the valley.

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