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Review: Strong performances make formulaic 'Green Book' hard to resist

Courtesy of Universal Pictures


I have to say that I had no idea what a Green Book was heading into the film “Green Book.” My first thought was that perhaps it had something to do with navigation? An atlas maybe?

Actually, during the era of Jim Crow laws and intense segregation in the Deep South, it was a motorist handbook that African-Americans could use to avoid “vacation without aggravation.” A glossary of local establishments (restaurants, hotels etc) that welcomed colored folk. Usually raggedy, not as clean or well kept compared to the whites, and in a state of decay.

“Green Book,” taking place in 1962 - the peak of those strict racial and close-minded guidelines, is a fruitful true story of how a tough guy from The Bronx ended up tackling his own pride and became a chauffeur for Don Shirley, one of the most prestigious and influential African-American pianists on the planet.

Aside from the unorthodox matchup, there aren’t many surprises in “Green Book” - generally towing the line between cliched melodrama and cheesy sentimentality - except when the film proclaims this film was directed by Peter Farrelly. The same Farrelly who is partially responsible for the gross-out comedies “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber.” But around the time “Shallow Hal” was released, I believe that showed audiences Farrelly could be sentimental without being gross.

He brings that attitude to “Green Book” - which puts a reverse spin on the “Driving Mrs. Daisy” formula - when he introduces us to two strangers, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Shirley (Mahershala Ali). One a working stiff who, when we first meet him, is pummeling local street punks into the ground outside nearby Cabana night club; and the other - a high class musician seeking professional drivers to oversee an important music tour through the racially charged states of Kentucky and Mississippi.

And because his job as the bouncer (or “public relations”) for the Cabana is temporarily on hold, combined with the fact that hot dog eating contests simply won’t pay the bills, Tony accepts the gig as Shirley’s newly appointed muscle. Though it means straying away from his wife (Linda Cardellini) for the better half of eight weeks, he knows if he doesn’t take the job, it could mean getting mixed up with organized crime.

Tony is a mild-mannered citizen who eats and eats. So it’s no surprise that Mortensen looks unrecognizable in his role, because he’s packed on a few extra pounds. This allows him to offer an interesting contrast to Ali’s Shirley who insists on proper diction, maintaining dignity when applicable, and to avoid condescending stereotypes. And Ali (fresh of his Oscar in “Moonlight”) is commanding and firm in his elegant portrayal, all but guaranteeing the actor another shot at Oscar gold.

At first, the courtship is strictly business, with Tony understanding the ins and outs of each venue that Shirley must perform at. He makes sure to have the exact piano Shirley has requested, and an important bottle of Cutty Sark each night before bed (per his contract). Simple enough until the pair start to grow a bond and chemistry. They each have their own moral code of honesty and honor. We first see this when Shirley catches Tony steal a “lucky rock” from a small gift shop. Such frivolous items bare no real world consequence, but to prove his point he makes Tony return it. Another is when Shirley is taken inside a bar in Mississippi and beaten for the sole reason of being a black man. Tony arrives to help him out, and the rest slowly molds into place.

Mortensen brings a certain depth to Tony that’s surprising for the actor. Considering his character is a white man fueled with hateful rhetoric and bigotry, the challenge is finding relatable ground for audiences to invest in. Whether that’s stuffing three cheeseburgers down his throat (in crazy succession) or introducing Shirley to real Kentucky Fried Chicken, through his performance - we grow to love him.

Not often enough do we see Mortensen in these type of comedic (thick accented) roles, despite a performance that’s showier of the two, you still can’t forget Ali who is a cosmic force to be reckoned with. Listening to him play like a mad men is quite the achievement. Even if the compensation comes from the pockets of those who still refuse service to a black man because of “tradition.”

Those instances provide a hefty look at how we treated each other in the past. And though “Green Book” would like to handle racism as if it’s been solved. Much like warm comfort food, the film checks all the boxes of crowd pleasing cinema in the same vein as “Hidden Figures” or “The Help.” It won’t tackle the crucial issues head on, but this was never going to be that movie.

Under those circumstances, the film creatively exemplifies what it means to steam from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. While “Green Book” certainly won’t end or heal racism across the country, we should still hope it succeeds at combating prejudice, long after the credits roll.

Grade: B

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