One of the more lighthearted films about racism you'll ever see, Green Book is a dramatization of the unlikely bond between the educated, fastidious African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley and his driver, a crude, gluttonous Italian-American named Tony "Lip" Vallelonga. Set in late 1962, the film chronicles Shirley's two-month tour of the American Midwest and South, with fellow New Yorker Vallelonga serving not only as his chauffeur but as his bodyguard, just in case things get dicey below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Green Book marks a change of pace for both of its leading men. I would have never seen Viggo Mortensen, known for playing soft-spoken, inscrutable characters, as a motormouth goombah. But after plumping himself up, dyeing his hair black, and copping a Bronx dialect, he delivers a funny, convincing performance. As the snooty, fastidious Shirley, Mahershala Ali – still just in his second or third year on the A-list, at 44 – gets a wonderful character to play, and he is wonderful to watch. Green Book is essentially The Odd Couple, plus racism.
Director Peter Farrelly is one of those Farrellys – with brother Bobby, he helmed the silly comedies Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, and so on. Trying his hand at drama, Farrelly brings over his populist toolkit, and so while Green Book thankfully has no gross-out moments, there's still a lot of humor in the film. I actually support this approach wholeheartedly, not only because life itself is humorous, but because lately we've been so inundated with cheerless, self-important dramas that I'm sick of them. Moreover, even the goofiest Farrelly Brothers comedies had earnest messages about tolerance towards outsiders, so Don and Tony really aren't far removed from the Farrellys' other buddy comedy misfits.
In short, the film is a genuine crowdpleaser, but it barely touches on the societal subtleties and complexities that would have made its story feel more vital. For example, a climatic confrontation with a racist Birmingham, Alabama country club manager has the manager shouting threats and vulgarities in the presence of his genteel clientele – this would never happen in the mannerly South, not even in the pre-Civil Rights era. As often happens with contemporary films set in a more openly racist past, the characters vacillate between living in 1962 and being time travelers from 2018. Certainly the real Don Shirley, in spite of his sheltered life in Manhattan, knew enough to understand why a white Macon, Georgia tailor wouldn't let him come in and try on a suit. But in the film, both Don and Tony go back and forth between "That's just how it is down here" and "What do you mean, a black man doesn't have the same rights as a white man?" I'd like to think that today's audiences can get the idea – bigotry bad, friendship good – without being beaten over the head with it.