By Angelo Muredda 

There’s a handy visual metaphor for auteurist progress in the way that road-movie savant Peter Farrelly trades the shaggy-dog van that carried his heroes most of the way from Providence to Aspen in Dumb and Dumber (1994) for the sleek vintage ride in Green Book. Farrelly’s first solo project since that debut is as aspirational as the upgrade would suggest. One of the godfathers of the ’90s gross-out comedy (along with brother Bobby, absent here), Farrelly has always been at ease pivoting between toilet gags and sweet character moments about innocents and hucksters. Green Book sees Farrelly clearly trying to go straight without losing himself in his autumnal 60s, repackaging his brand of ribald humour for the prestige vehicle of a woke, opposites-attract period buddy comedy set in the segregation-era Deep South (and one that is based on a true story to boot). That he more or less succeeds is a testament to his bawdy humanism in the face of his almost equally striking incomprehension of the deep divides of race and class in ’60s America.

The film’s title refers to Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, a vital consumer’s guide for prospective African-American travellers that was first published in the ’30s and was regularly updated up until 1966. Green’s book was aimed at helping black motorists navigate the Jim Crow South by reviewing businesses like restaurants, hotels, and gas stations that might accommodate rather than discriminate (or worse). The book is essential reading for Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (invested with equal parts loveable oafishness and cockroach survival instinct by Viggo Mortensen), who has been entrusted with chauffeuring famed Jamaican-American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his calculatedly risky tour of the South—a job that calls for a quick-thinking bodyguard as much as a driver. Predictably enough, that journey becomes an occasion for the two wildly different men to gradually rub off on one another.

Farrelly gets a lot of mileage out of the men’s contrasting manners and bearing. Don is elegant and withdrawn in a rich assortment of wine and mustard turtlenecks; Tony is unreserved and unpolished, at one point wolfishly folding an entire pizza into an indulgent sandwich, Neapolitan style. There’s a kick in watching Ali’s clipped, mannered style bump up against Mortensen’s earthiness, though the more that contrast is delineated—as in one on-the-nose set piece where Tony teaches Don how to eat fried chicken in a car—the less organic it feels. Yet whether it’s due to the heavy hand of Vallelonga’s son Nick on the screenwriting team, Farrelly’s innate  connection to Italian-American working-class brio, or simply Mortensen’s skill at physical comedy, the film’s heart and energy are clearly with Tony. Too often the film flattens Don (and Ali’s sensitive but remote performance) into a curio for Tony to marvel at: a dignified black man in a hostile white world, a self-styled dandy among rich rubes who couldn’t buy his culture if they tried—and oh how they try. (“It don’t look fun to be that smart,” Tony admits in a letter home, a device that does a lot of the heavy lifting for Don’s characterization.) The moment when Tony elucidates the book’s purpose to his lightly scandalized liberal wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) is telling. It’s a guide for “travelling while black,” he explains, a bit guiltily—spelling out for the presumed white audience what Don is already miles past learning, and leaving Don in the unenviable position of being less a character than a stoic fount of terrible knowledge about American anti-black racism. He’s forced to do for the film what the historical Shirley has already done: make white people feel like they’re learning something while they pay to see black performers excel.

Still, there’s something bold about Farrelly’s determination to make an awards-bait dramedy about the banality and ignorance of white privilege—something that many of the white, anti-PC comedy writers who made their mark in the ’90s scoff at. For all the familiarity of the odd-couple pairing and the picaresque plot about a certified goof viewing his country afresh through the eyes of his travelling companion, Farrelly depicts Tony’s own particular ethnic and racial hang-ups with real insight. In an early scene where Tony willfully mishears an instruction to fill out an application from Don’s South Asian personal assistant Amit (Iqbal Theba), Farrelly deliberately focuses not on Tony’s offense, but Amit’s quietly indignant response. Amit repeats the instruction slowly, and with a moneyed white inflection beyond the elocutionary capability of Tony’s lumbering Bronx tongue (which he can’t be bothered to muster when he’s mispronouncing Tony’s own ethnic last name).

Tony’s incredulousness at Don’s decision to have him drive them back to his hotel from a venue with a segregated bathroom is also bracing in its cultural specificity, a rare moment when a race melodrama by a white filmmaker explicitly says something about white callousness. Farrelly, Mortensen, and Ali don’t just emphasize the palatable lesson that Don is brave for playing to people who fail to recognize his humanity (although Tony does get there). The scene works as well as it does because all three are committed to revealing the implicit violence behind Tony’s initial passivity—his inability to clock that the insult of the situation doesn’t lie in Don’s decision to have them drive all the way back to the hotel, but in their host’s blunt refusal of his personhood. Tony’s baby steps to allyship are frequently textured in this way, from a moment where he deflates the revelation of Don’s queerness with a bashful admission that his time as a bouncer in New York City nightclubs has taught him that “It’s a complicated world,” to a tense family dinner after he’s left the utopian bubble of the car, the air in the conspicuously spicy-white, Italian-American gathering charged with the likelihood of someone saying something racist about Tony’s employer over an otherwise sparkling Christmas Eve feast.

If only that complexity about Tony’s weary and newly acquired cosmopolitanism extended to the black characters. The film becomes awkward and unconvincing whenever it needs to take in the black bit players who flesh out the world beyond Tony and Don. A stilted early tableau where a more transparently racist Tony is discomforted by a pair of black maintenance workers drinking lemonade from his glasses (which he throws in the trash when his wife isn’t looking), is rhymed with an equally clunky moment later on where the nattily dressed Don regards—and is regarded by—black labourers by the side of the road. Farrelly, seemingly stumped by the weight of both gazes, is contented with their perfunctory, tasteless performance for a white audience equipped to draw only the most elementary conclusions about the way race and class separate would-be kin. Like its (white) protagonist, Green Book is limited by its own blinkered perspective. Some will no doubt find its revelations minor at best, or pointless at worst; but as a character study of one specific person’s modest growth and simultaneous stasis, it’s surprisingly frank.

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope Issue 86 Table of Contents

    The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale by Jordan Cronk *The More →

  • The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020

    1. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 2. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter and Anders Edström) 3. The Year of More →

  • Gag Orders: The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah

    Bobby Seale makes a cameo of sorts midway through Judas and the Black Messiah, as Martin Sheen’s porcine J. Edgar Hoover—checking in personally on the progress of the FBI’s campaign against Chicago Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya)—is shown an artist’s sketch of the BPP’s national chairman gagged and shackled in the courtroom during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. This revolting spectacle understandably serves as the mid-film dramatic highpoint of The Trial of the Chicago 7, when the repeated, suitably indignant demands by Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to serve as his own defense counsel in the absence of his hospitalized lawyer—and presiding judge Julius Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) incredible refusal to grant this right, instead directing that Seale’s defense should be undertaken by the representatives for the other defendants—ultimately lead to him being bodily removed from the courtroom by marshals and returned in chains. That image of a defiant Black man, forcibly silenced and immobilized in a hall of American justice, became one of William Burroughs’ “frozen moment[s] at the end of the newspaper fork,” when everyone—including those who would applaud it—can see what they’re being fed. More →

  • Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, US)

    Entering Riz Ahmed in the disability cosplay sweepstakes as a young drummer coping with hearing loss, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal originated as a lightly meta vehicle for husband-and-wife sludge-metal duo Jucifer to be directed by Derek Cianfrance, with whom Marder co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). That the final result is more surprising than the rote uplift narrative suggested by its edifying logline is a testament to both Ahmed’s cagey intensity... More →

  • The Primacy of Perception: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider

    Near the midpoint of The Girl and the Spider—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013)—a character launches into another of the Zürcher brothers’ distinctive anecdotal monologues. Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is as close as this film gets to a protagonist, describes for her neighbour, Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), an incident that occurred the previous day between herself and her newly ex-roommate (and perhaps ex-girlfriend) Lisa (Liliane Amuat). “I was in my room while Lisa was on the toilet,” she recounts. “She asked me to bring her a roll of toilet paper. Instead of giving it to her, I walked past the door from left to right, from Lisa’s point of view.” The image cuts to the scene while she recalls it, privileging us with a more objective account of the incident: a fixed shot showing Mara stand up from her desk, grab a package of toilet paper, and march past the door, her arms outstretched like a zombie. More →