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Review: Green Book – “A well-intentioned crowd-pleaser”

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Odd couple buddy movies don’t usually attract the kind of heat Green Book has. Inspired by a real 1962 road trip where a black virtuoso pianist, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is driven through the deep south on tour by a white, ex-bouncer, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Directed by Peter Farrelly with a script by Tony’s son Nick, the white perspective of the story has been criticised by Don’s Shirley’s family for lacking credibility as well as film critics for its sanitised racial politics.

The personal is political, and these are a legitimate argument. However, it’s a film that has a spirit of kindness and flickers of hope bundled up in a mainstream entertainment package.

Green Book is named after the travel guide written for African Americans between 1936 and 1966 travelling through racially segregated States that the pair use to help Dr Shirley travel more safely on tour.

The film isn’t here to do anything particularly radical, but it is, for the most part, a well-intentioned crowd-pleaser about racial division. Different folks, shown with very broad strokes.

The story beats are heavily signposted throughout the film. We get the ‘how will this ever work?’ set up. Viggo Mortensen’s Tony is a gruff, hot-tempered Italian American who cracks heads as a bouncer at The Copacabana. Dr Don Shirley is a poised, famous but private musician and intellectual living in a penthouse above Carnegie Hall. But Tony needs a job, and Don needs some muscle to drive him through Jim Crow country. So off they go on an eight-week tour through the southern states.

A tour where Don receives a red carpet greeting by moneyed white hosts, only to be told he’s not welcome to use the indoor bathroom. We never really see the brutal details of violence and racism in ‘60s America, but it looms in the background. Lurking like the thugs in grimy bars, and in the dread of seeing Tony and Don’s car pulled over by a police officer on a dark road.

Contextual depth is lacking, but the on-screen chemistry between the two leads is hard to deny. Awards categories may consider Marsala Ali a supporting actor, but the story wouldn’t exist if Tony hadn’t met Don and it is testament to Ali’s skill as an actor that he does a lot with the small details teased out about Shirley’s private life in the script. Viggo Mortensen leans a bit close to caricature at times. He waves his arms and chews up scenery on occasion (as well as food with his mouth open, gross). But scenes where Tony’s raconteur-like flair for bullshitting is met by clipped responses from Don, occasionally zinging him back are some of the film’s most entertaining. “Two t’s in bullshitter”, Don retorts, as he helps Tony write letters home to his wife Delores (an underused, Linda Cardellini) with far more eloquence than he’s used to.

Like a lot of musicians, Don Shirley is never more animated than when comes to life in performing his music. His whole body language is looser. In the car he’s buttoned up, trying to get from A to B with as little hassle as possible. On stage, he plays without inhibition. In those moments eyes are on him for the right reasons. Ali shines brightly in those moments, but also in the pensive moments, where his “otherness” is most obvious: his fluid sexuality, his wealth as well as his race all make it hard to fit in anywhere, especially in the Bible Belt.

As a feel-good crowd-pleaser about an unlikely friendship, and finding empathy through shared experience Green Book works. It’s less successful in its social commentary. A light touch can be an accessible way of dealing with hard subjects, but more weight needed to be given to seeing those experiences through Don Shirley’s eyes rather than Tony’s. The film’s festive coda reaches for those Frank Capra feels to bring the curtain down on, it’s a shame it didn’t come out a couple of months earlier.

Overall, it’s an entertaining A Side that hints at but doesn’t quite deliver on its portrayal of an enigmatic Black musician and his subversive 1962 Tour. Perhaps there is an opportunity to explore further into Don Shirley’s story in a B Side.

Green Book is released in UK Cinemas on 30th January.

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