Despite their sense of humour not always being the most tasteful, I can’t help but admit that I’ve had a soft spot for some of the films by the Farrelly brothers and seeing that a new film was to be directed by Peter Farrelly solo, maybe there was already something interesting set to come along the way. Being a more dramatic turn for the sole Farrelly brother, Green Book is a film that already evokes the feeling of being made to garner awards attention and given the subject matter, there was already a part of me that was set to become skeptical of what the film would have become. But perhaps those expectations would have ended up leading to the film actually pleasantly surprising me in Green Book, for it’s also been rather easy for me to get skeptical of films that end up winning the People’s Choice Award over at the Toronto International Film Festival (beating out If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma). It’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser, in part to its own benefit and maybe even to a bit of a hindrance.
Based on the true story of the friendship between African-American musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), Green Book tells a story of how this friendship kept two people of very different sorts together during a time in which racism had also been normalized in America. Being co-written by two people who have been so close with Tony Lip (one of the screenwriters being Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga), there’s one side of this story that takes up the good lot of the film but in typical Farrelly brothers fashion you have a nice story of two friends making a road trip all across America, even learning more about themselves while there. So in that same sense, you already have the material that could easily make a perfect crowdpleaser but that’s also one of the most critical flaws that pervade Green Book – especially given how it handles the subject matter at hand, being presented only as a mere background detail.
Viggo Mortensen is absolutely doing his best to capture the spirit of Tony Lip, but the way in which this narrative utilizes Mahershala Ali’s presence as Don Shirley also feels somewhat troubling too. It’s not unfamiliar to see films about how during the eras of the Jim Crow laws, a white perspective would already be able to see how awful the treatment of black people would be for the time, but everything about Don Shirley’s life was what had fascinated me more. As expected, Mahershala Ali’s performance as Don Shirley is fantastic, especially in how he captures a very classy mannerism that conflicts with Tony Lip’s more casual, foul-mouthed schtick – and an apparent food obsession that allows him to bite into an entire pizza after simply folding it. But because of how well this mismatch actually sounds, that journey to find a common ground between the two can already make for an entertaining ride through an awful time for America – at least if the film hadn’t already been trying its best to tell a simple tale of friendship that only goes to show how racism cannot keep the two apart no matter what.
With all of that having been said, the many entertaining moments that come thanks to the friendship of Don Shirley and Tony Lip all seem presented as a very safe way of addressing how racism destroys any sense of humanity – and even showing so much of it during a more nostalgic setting only makes the film feel more hokey too. The idea that a film like this would have been directed by a Farrelly brother is weird enough, but sadly in a rather expected manner it never seems to scratch below the surface of its own message about the horrors of racism and what it had taught Tony Lip. But I think only so much could have been achieved from the fact that this story was told through the white perspective, because our view of Don Shirley feels more like it were the perspective of an observer – we already know that his music is absolutely wonderful, yet at the very least none of this ever veers into the territory of overdone melodrama.
There was most certainly a story worth being told in Green Book, but I’m more interested in seeing this journey from the eyes of Don Shirley, whose ambition had only felt far more present than that of Tony Lip. At the very least, Nick Vallelonga’s own love letter to his own father makes Viggo Mortensen’s performance feel more touching – but I’m curious as to what this film would also hold for the future of director Peter Farrelly. On one hand, you already have evidence that he’s a more confident filmmaker when he’s working solo – especially to that point he would be willing to take on far more dramatic territory. Yet on the other, I’m not entirely sure that growth feels completely present because of how much more effectively Green Book functions as a feel-good comedy than it does as a true story-based drama. I think it would be fair to say at least that Peter Farrelly has time to grow to more confidently shift into this territory especially given his background having started as a novelist, but only time will tell what this would really mean for him. To say the least, I am looking forward to seeing another dramatic venture from a solo Peter Farrelly in the future, should it happen.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Screenplay by Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie
Produced by Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 130 minutes