Peter Farrelly, along with brother Bobby, is best known for bawdy, slapstick shenanigans like There’s Something about Mary and Dumb and Dumber. With Green Book, Peter tries his hand at an Oscar-bait biopic in which the touring troubles of African-American musician Dr Don Shirley are channelled into an odd-couple dramedy that both benefits from Farrelly’s feather-light touch and, given the sensitivity and factual basis of the narrative, is somewhat scuppered by it.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American nightclub bouncer hired in 1962 to act as chauffeur to virtuoso pianist Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as his trio embark on an eight-week tour of the Deep South in the run up to Christmas. Dubbed Tony “Lip” in reference to his gift of the gab, Vallelonga is also handy with his fists, something Don is counting on given the region’s reputation as a hotbed of racial tension. To ease their passage, the pair consult the The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook listing services and accommodation accessible to African-American travellers.
The two men could hardly be more mismatched. Salt-of-the-earth joker Tony is semi-literate, while the haughty, humourless Don boasts a triple doctorate. During their first encounter in Don’s flat above Carnegie Hall, he sports regal African robes and interrogates Tony from an ornate, throne-like chair. Tony is a man who has embraced his own cultural stereotype just as surely as Don has rejected his; he’s astonished to learn that his employer has never listened to Motown or eaten fried chicken.
Co-written by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga (who collaborates with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie on the script), it is perhaps unsurprising that a man initially shown to have racist tendencies rapidly evolves into a ruffian with a heart of gold. Nevertheless, Mortensen turns in a charming, nuanced and comedically gifted performance that feels like his most accomplished yet.
Ali is even finer, playing an isolated, angry and often inebriated character unable to fully identity with, nor find acceptance within, either white or black communities. A man of few words and well-concealed emotions, the discreet way that he conveys Don’s heartache is, at points, terrifically moving.
The unlikely friendship that flourishes between the “commoner” at the wheel and his well-to-do boss in the backseat most obviously recalls Driving Miss Daisy, and this jovial and never more than gently melancholy film firmly establishes itself in that same virtuous but simplified and commercially friendly tradition. Indeed, there’s something rather old-fashioned about Don educating Tony and helping him to craft love letters to his beloved wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), evoking cinematic staples of heart-tugging tutelage seen previously in movies like My Fair Lady and Cyrano de Bergerac.
The occasional pleasant surprise punctuates the predictable strife that greets the duo on their journey. The screenplay doesn’t lay its lessons on thick exactly, but the beats it hits are entirely expected – a rousing, entertaining-the-locals bar scene, for example. Moreover, the film lacks anger; Don’s quiet dignity in the face of relentless racial discrimination gives Farrelly an excuse not to confront the true ugliness of a stubbornly ingrained problem that shames America to this day.
Yet Mortensen and Ali make an irresistible duo in a well-meaning and touching, albeit slightly misjudged film, boasting plenty of awards-friendly polish if sorely lacking the requisite grit; right down to its driving-home-for-Christmas crowd-pleasing conclusion, it gives 1960s race relations an unnecessarily accessible overhaul.
Green Book is released at cinemas from Friday 1st February