At times you worry when a film comes with it a lot of hype. If you see a film after many already have you wonder if it could ever live up to the build up. Such was the case with Green Book. It won top film at this year’s TIFF, gotten largely great reviews and has won a couple of awards. And yet it still was not a disappointment when I recently saw it. Actually, it was more moving than I thought it would be.
Green Book is another film amidst a slew in recent years based on a true story. Co-written by the son, Nick Vallelonga, of one of the two main characters, some have claimed that it is a rather flimsy story. A more realistic summation of the story is that it is a real life story. Stories like this which are made into films are often dismissed as “small” films. I counter that they are “bigger” films in the scope of human communication or experience than all the Avengers films put together. Stories about average folk (though it could be argued successfully that neither of the men in this film were average) are those which need to see the light of day. My two cents worth.
Surprise was the name of the game when I found out that the director of the film was half of the Farrelly brothers – Peter. Yes, those Farrelly brothers. The men behind such silly and crass films like There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber and Me, Myself & Irene. In a complete change of pace this is not a comedy (though there are some chuckles to be had) nor vulgar. Farrelly zeroes in on a portrayal of humanity with all its bumps and bruises. That social change often comes through a combination of love, exposure and confrontation.
Bronx born and lifer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic, A History of Violence) or Tony Lip, as his friends call him, finds himself temporarily out of work when the club he works the door at, the Copacabana, closes for two months for renovations. He cannot just take an extended vacation as his family – wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini – Brokeback Mountain, Legally Blonde) and two sons – needs the money. Even though some less than savoury or legal offers of employment are on the table from within the Italian community, Tony finds himself going out on the road for a couple of months just before Christmas with pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali – Moonlight, Hidden Figures).
Now, if two men could be more unalike I don’t know. Whereas Tony is totally blue collar (read rough around the edges), Dr. Don Shirley is a very refined man. Plus Tony is white (and a racist) and Shirley is black. But Tony needs the money, so he takes the job driving Shirley around from gig to gig. The tricky part is that this is the early 60s and the tour is going to take them through the deep South. Trouble is bound to crop up. Tony is hired more for his braun than his brains or manners.
Most of the reason this film works is the great work done by the two male leads. Mortensen and Ali have great onscreen chemistry which is essential in any road trip/buddy film. They are great in their respective roles. Two characters who in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes. You can easily see how that could happen. Instead nuance is injected in both Tony and Shirley. Transformations happen seemlessly. Quietly. But deeply.
Plenty of sentiment to be found here. I found myself moved at several different points while watching. It is as affective as it is effecting. Most of the emotion is due to you thinking about the social change that took place all over the United States and continent at this time.
Yes, this is a smaller story about racism and change. Change of heart and vision which brought about further needed change. But really is an illustration of a lot of small stories which brought about larger social change. Important. Conversations between the two in that huge (yet small) Cadillac change both of them. Eyes and hearts are opened while horizons are widened. An important film at a time in which, over 50 years later, racial issues are still on the front burner.