“Green Book” Movie Review

That was perhaps the most stereotypical depiction of an Italian-American in movies that I’ve seen in many years. Seriously, he eats in literally every scene… and I’m 100% here for it. This historical buddy dramedy initially premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Despite a low amount of expectations, the film unexpectedly won the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award, giving a big boost of confidence to the studio. It was then released in theaters by Universal Pictures on November 16th, 2018, before expanding into more screens after Thanksgiving. It has already won back more than its $23 million budget and scored some positive reviews, albeit ones that were quite a bit cooler after its premiere. Directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, generally known for making screwball comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, his brother and longtime collaborator Bobby retreated from the spotlight after suffering a personal tragedy. He then came upon a script written by Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (The main character’s real-life son) and decided to take it on as his first solo gig. There was also a bit of controversy garnered prior to its release when its primary star said the N-word during a Q&A screening, for which he profusely apologized afterward. Based on the true story, Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga,” an Italian-American nightclub bouncer working in 1962 New York City. After his mob-run establishment gets closed down for months-long renovations, he seeks a new job to keep his working-class family afloat. Eventually, he comes upon Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, a highly educated African-American pianist looking for a chauffeur and bodyguard as he’s about to embark on a tour of the Deep South. Aided by a copy of the titular book, a guide for navigating segregated restaurants and hotels in various towns and states, the two set off on a road trip where they learn more about each other than they could have ever realized. It’s very interesting to watch this movie in our current cinematic and social environment. Had it come out about a decade earlier, I guarantee it would already be in the conversation for Oscar buzz, possibly even the big front-runner. Not that the genre has necessarily died out, but perhaps because audiences have become a lot more cynical since then. Truth be told out, it wasn’t until the film won big at TIFF that I became interested, especially because it stars two of my favorite actors currently working. Especially because this is Peter Farrelly’s first foray into more dramatic territory, a move that either heightens or damages a director’s career. And yes, Green Book is undoubtedly an enjoyable movie, but there’s something about it that just doesn’t sit quite right with me. Look, every now and then, I’m all for watching a nice, feel-good movie like this one. And on the whole, there really isn’t anything particularly wrong with Green Book or what it tries to be. What’s a tad troubling is that it’s primarily told through the eyes of a white man with some racist attitudes. His employer, meanwhile, is so well-spoken and insightful that it nearly borders on the infamous “Magical Negro” stereotype. In fact, the whole message of the movie is how stereotyping other people is both bad and counterproductive. A good sentiment, indeed, but it certainly could’ve worked on it a little more, especially in scenarios such as the two of them eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car together. Viggo Mortensen has made some interesting role choices ever since retiring as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Here, as Tony Lip, he provides yet another committed lead performance. Putting on 40 to 50 pounds for the role, his lack of intellect makes for some funny moments on the road and his large physique makes him a convincingly intimidating bodyguard. Riding in the back seat with him is Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali, who breaks type from his usual roles. Behind all of his intelligence and incredible musical ability is a man disillusioned and alone in a world that doesn’t know what to do with him. The two share great chemistry together on-screen and make a great dichotomy over the course of about 2 hours and 10 minutes. In a supporting, more thankless role, Linda Cardellini is caring and concerned as Tony’s wife Dolores. Perhaps the most open-minded person in the whole film, her scenes brought something endearing and sweet-natured. Other players include Iqbal Theba, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimeter Marinov, and Mike Hatton, many of whom do great work but rarely find an interesting angle. As far as technical aspects go, Green Book is about as old-fashioned as its story execution. Sean Porter’s cinematography seems to utilize a certain grainy feel in an effort to make it feel more like the 1960s. It uses a lot of medium shots early on, often to convey the distance between the two protagonists despite their physical closeness. During some of Shirley’s concerts, it does these nice long-takes to show Ali’s incredible skills at the piano. The fact that it always shows his whole body and not just his hands is a testament to the actor’s power. Also, Patrick J. Don Vito deserves a mention for how it was able to keep things interesting during the duos travels. Considering nearly half the movie is just Tony and Don in the car together, it managed to cut between the two of them pretty well most of the time. It also knew when to drag shots out or rack focus for comedic purposes. Jazz pianist Kris Bowers composes and conducts the instrumental film score, fittingly so considering one of the main subjects. Much of the soundtrack infuses a lot of the lush, classical pieces that Don Shirley plays throughout the film. It can be either exciting or relaxing, but it’s always interesting when they’re used in scene transitions.  The rest of the soundtrack mostly consists of more dramatic, understated fare that does its best to wring out strong emotion without trying to be manipulative. Despite what you may have read in this review, I’d like to clarify that I didn’t actually hate this movie at all. I just think that these kinds of movies are becoming a little bit too obsolete for their own good. It’s nice that some high-profile filmmakers and actors are still game to do something more old-fashioned , even if the end results aren’t always that amazing. Green Book is an old-school, shamelessly charming crowdpleaser with some problematic subtext. Peter Farrelly certainly has decent dramatic chops, but there wasn’t a whole lot of mat on this bone to chew. They may not make them like they used to, but sometimes, there’s a decent reason for why.

Image result for green book poster

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