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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 Don is elegant and withdrawn in a rich assortment of wine and mustard turtlenecks; Tony is unreserved and unpolished, at one point wolfishly folding an entire pizza into an indulgent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.