Combustible Celluloid
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With: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, Joe Cortese, Iqbal Theba, Sebastian Maniscalco, P.J. Byrne, Montrel Miller, Dennis W. Hall, Randal Gonzalez, Maggie Nixon
Written by: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material
Running Time: 130
Date: 11/21/2018

Green Book (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Road Lines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dealing as it does with racism, Peter Farrelly's Green Book brings up a few issues outside its story. The movie was made by a white man, it's set in the past, and it's a lightweight, feel-good entertainment that wraps things up neatly and satisfyingly. Many today, especially in this era in which racism has been horrifyingly mainstreamed, are going to take offense at some or all of these issues. But let's take them one at a time.

Firstly, I don't believe that any filmmaker should be banned from any certain subject, or that only certain kinds of filmmakers can make films about certain kinds of subjects. I believe in creative freedom. And while it's true that a white man cannot ever know the depths, truths, and agonies of racism, a white man can most certainly be affected by it, to some degree, or have feelings about it, feelings that can be conveyed in storytelling.

Secondly, some critics have argued that by taking place in the past, and by wrapping up its story so completely, the film implies that racism has been solved, or isn't as bad today. That suggests that audience members don't have any thoughts of their own about the subject; I think that anyone who sees the film that opposes racism will have his or her views justified, and anyone that sees the film who is already racist could possibly come away somewhat enlightened, although the truth is that racists probably won't see this film at all. Either way, no one is going to be fooled by this movie into thinking that racism isn't a problem anymore.

Thirdly, Green Book is indeed a lightweight film, and I like it that way. I like my "message" movies to be mixed in with other things, like comedy or romance or terror or what have you. If a "message" movie does nothing but preach to the audience, I -- and most audiences -- tend to resist. By entertaining us first and providing some thoughts secondly, Green Book succeeds better than more serious movies.

Green Book focuses on the friendship between a white man and a black man, in the early 1960s. It's told from the point of view of the white man mainly because that white man's son helped write the screenplay. He's Tony Vallelonga, or "Tony Lip" (Viggo Mortensen) for short. He's a tough, highly streetwise bouncer at the Copa, who finds himself temporarily out of work while the club undergoes renovation. He's contacted by musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) with an offer to work as a driver on a tour through the deep south, culminating in a Christmas show.

Tony is depicted as racist when his more open-minded wife (Linda Cardellini) hires two black plumbers for repairs in the kitchen and gives them water. Later, Tony picks up the drinking glasses between his fingers and throws them in the trash. It's a bit strange that he would so easily take the job driving "Doc," though the movie hints that his professionalism wins out over his beliefs. He's a man of honor, and he will honor the job, no matter what.

So Green Book is a road movie with the two men sharing most of its scenes. Like any simple romantic comedy, Doc is fastidious and likes things a certain way, while Tony is brash and uncouth, more willing to break the rules. They frequently challenge each other on their behaviors and decisions, and these challenges sometimes lead to funny moments, and sometimes to moments of poignancy.

Moments come up wherein Doc becomes a victim of racism (we learn that he specifically chose to tour the deep south in order to challenge these beliefs), and Tony must react and decide what's right. Director and co-writer Farrelly, one half of a brother team that made things like Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary, and he knows a thing or two about sprinkling humor with bittersweet.

Farrelly's pacing is impressive, turning in a whopping 130-minute movie that simply flies by, and never feels too heavy or too long, and never outstays its welcome. He also coaxes excellent performances from all the players. Mortensen gives a showy performance, packing on some pounds and perfecting an Italian accent; he looks like he's having fun throwing his weight around and being a wise-guy.

Ali's performance is more interior, masterful, elegant, but it's a shame that the role couldn't have been more the equal of its counterpart; he's clearly the secondary character in a story about two people. Things happen to Doc's character, while Tony's character gets to make things happen. In her supporting role, Cardellini is excellent, giving more heart to this type of "waiting-at-home-wife" character than is typical. Everything else outside this trio mostly falls into place, the music, the scenery, the Christmas decorations, etc. And the movie's racists come across as appropriately pathetic and nasty. (Certain moments of revenge upon them are particularly sweet.)

Then there is the "green book" of the title, a piece of history I did not know about. It was a guidebook written by Victor Hugo Green and made available to musicians and other black travelers who ventured into the deep south; it outlined which hotels, restaurants, gas stations, etc., were friendly to African-Americans. Of course, if whites were traveling with blacks, they we're forced to split up in certain areas, the whites staying in nicer hotels.

It's a shocking bit of information, with the dual notion that the book was of course helpful, and probably saved some lives, but along with it the awful fact that it was ever needed in the first place. Perhaps the green book is gone, but racism is as strong as ever, and perhaps the friendship shared by Tony "Lip" and "Doc" Shirley, both in this film and in real life, can inspire at least a few souls to think twice about it.

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