It’s a situation we’ve seen a hundred times before, both in dramatic and comedic forms; two people whose backgrounds are polar opposites come together in unusual circumstances, learning much about themselves and each other during their time together and discover that they are not so different after all. Inspired by a true story, Green Book is a road movie with a message that, in a racial reversal of Driving Miss Daisy, features a white man serving as a chauffeur and minder to a black man. The title comes from the travel guide of the restaurants and motels that African-Americans were allowed to frequent in the segregated south of 1960’s America.
Specifically, it is 1962 and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer at the Copacobana nightclub in need of work while the club is closed for renovations. The most promising opportunity that presents itself is a job working as a driver for African-American piano virtuoso Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he embarks on a concert tour of the Deep South. Despite his misgivings, not the least of which is the time it will take him away from his wife (Linda Cardellini) and children, Tony signs on and they hit the highway for a trip that will see their relationship change from one of mutual disdain and clashing attitudes about almost everything to one of respect and genuine friendship. These are two men from different worlds; Don is a snobbish sophisticate who is somewhat clueless about how the world works beyond the gilded cage of his luxury apartment situated above Carnegie Hall, while Tony is a street-wise, straight-talking Italian-American who is forced to cast aside his own racist leanings to accept the job.
Throughout the course of their journey, both men come to comprehend the limitations of their own understandings about America, with Don facing the type of discrimination and exclusion far beyond anything he ever experienced in New York. Not only is he barred from staying in the hotel at which he is performing, he is not allowed to use the toilets or eat in the restaurant alongside the very same people who are paying to watch him play, an audience that perhaps sees him as a novelty act rather than a world-class musician. The biggest problem lies in the credibility of Tony’s transformation from ignorant to enlightened, and perhaps he is presented in such a positive light because the screenplay has been adapted from a book by his son Nick. After all, this is a man who threw two glasses in the rubbish bin simply because they had been used by African-American men. The colour palette of greens, apricots and blues serve to romanticise the events in a way that undermines the plight of black Americans living in the southern states at the time. Sure, we get a glimpse of the prejudice they encounter through Don’s experiences, but we never get any real insight into what life is like every day for those who don’t have the luxury of retreating back to New York.
Undergoing a significant physical transformation for the role, Mortensen is a far cry from the off-the-grid hippie he portrayed in Captain Fantastic and he somehow makes Tony both infuriating and endearing at the same time, while Ali revels in the opportunity to follow up his Academy Award-winning turn in Moonlight with another exceptional performance, this time as a man who is as talented as he is stubborn and self-destructive. Green Book signifies a welcome shift in tone for director Peter Farrelly, who is best known for his work alongside his brother Bobby on such lightweight fare as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, and whilst there is no doubt that his efforts here are well-intentioned and the film delivers a wonderful exploration of an unlikely friendship, it unfortunately misses the mark in its examination of race relations more broadly at a time of great upheaval and unrest.