As one half of the directing duo behind popular comedies like "There's Something About Mary" and "Dumb and Dumber," Peter Farrelly (alongside his brother Bobby) has crafted outrageous, gross-out comedies that contain an unexpectedly warm-hearted, sentimental streak. For his first solo directorial outing, Farrelly leans into that sweet, character-driven side to tackle the topic of race relations in America, with the road trip dramedy "Green Book."
The film's title comes from the Negro Motorist Green Book, a real-life travel guide published from 1936 to 1966 that offered listings of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and entertainment establishments that were safe for black Americans to use while traveling around the country. Created by Victor Hugo Green, the Green Book provided a vital service, particularly for those traveling through the Jim Crow south.
But the story "Green Book" tells has little to do with that fascinating piece of black history. Set in 1962, the film focuses instead on Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Finding himself temporarily out of work, he accepts a job as a driver for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a celebrated black jazz pianist about to embark on his first tour below the Mason-Dixon Line. Venturing into potentially dangerous territory, he needs Tony's muscle for additional protection.
It's not a job Tony's initially eager to take, for reasons that stem from his own prejudice. In one early scene, we watch him quietly throw away his own glasses after they're used by two black repairmen who come to fix his sink. But he needs the money, and soon he's chauffeuring the musician across the country in a shiny turquoise Cadillac.
The two men have a prickly relationship at first. Aside from their racial divide, Tony's gregariously uncouth ways clash with Don's more fastidious nature. But in time, the trip spawns an unlikely friendship, as the two men bond and learn to respect one another despite and sometimes because of their differences.
"Green Book" aims to be crowd-pleaser, and its familiar odd-couple, "we can solve racism if we just learn to understand each other" narrative traffics in safe, comforting answers to the serious issues it seeks to tackle.
It's not without its charms: Farrelly knows how to craft an entertaining movie, and "Green Book" is frequently quite funny, with some poignant moments sprinkled throughout. The film does exactly what it sets out to do, but even that feels a bit disappointing when there was an opportunity for it to be so much more.
Still, it mostly works thanks in large part to the charismatic performances of Mortensen and Ali, who have a nice, genuine chemistry together. Mortensen creates the sense of a real person beneath all the goombah stereotypes, and Ali provides an emotional heart to the film, tapping into his character's loneliness and rarely expressed anger.
The script was written by Farrelly and Brian Currie along with the real-life Vallelonga's actual son Nick, which explains the decision to place Tony at its center. It's impossible to watch the film and not realize Shirley's is by far the more interesting story, but of course Hollywood can't help centering on white people even in narratives about race.
So we get another story where white people have to learn about black people's humanity, and the black characters exist so the white characters are able to learn and grow. The film makes pains to assure us that deep down Tony's a decent guy who means well, and his prejudice is contrasted with the "real" racism he and Don encounter on their travels, which ranges from casual remarks to outright violence.
There's a tendency for Hollywood to relegate these types of stories to the past, as though racism were only a problem back then. Their non-confrontational narratives allow their (mostly white) audiences to watch and feel good about how far we've come. But if the last few years have taught us nothing else, it's that we haven't progressed as far as we like to tell ourselves.