Note: It’s been a long time since my last entry. Apologies. I’ve seen many an older, classic film, but no films in the theater. Yes, it’s been that busy. The older films I saw deserve their own entry, but an entry for an old film takes as long as an entry from a newer one.
I feel more of a reviewer than a serious film writer when I write about Green Book. It’s the feel-good film of the season, and (spoiler alert) since it ends at Christmas, can conceivably be considered something of a Christmas film.
The film itself is middle of the road, and a bit paint-by-numbers. It’s the story of a talented black pianist, great as a solo act but financially successful as part of a trio, who engages a dees-dem-dose Italian guy from Brooklyn to drive him on his next tour—one that will take him to the deep South. Once you hear this, and know that the time is 1962, nearly any adult could map out what might happen. And it does. But it doesn’t really matter that much.
A film like this stands or falls on its performances, and this is where the film most succeeds. Viggo Mortensen, a Danish-American actor who is probably best known for playing Aragon in the LOTR films, veers far from his normal stick-thin film character to play this version of the overweight Tony Danza Italian-American. The film doesn’t ask Mortensen for much more than believability here, but he supplies it with a performance that first nails the character, then enriches it with the occasional emotional detail; his great success is transcending all the clichés which could so easily could have dulled this character.
Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Moonlight) plays the polished, half-isolated musician who doesn’t feel at home anywhere. Of course he’s the perfect balance to Mortensen’s earthy, street-wise sauce-and-pasta kind of guy. To say more is to sound cliché, but also to give away too much. Each learns from the other, which viewers can see from a mile away, but that process is fortunately linked to the great chemistry between the two actors and characters.
Holding these two together beyond the plot is Linda Cardellini, who plays Tony’s (Mortensen’s) wife Dolores. Cardellini is an underused American treasure who brings her A game to a small part, and is really the third solid performance of the film. She is woven into the plot as the two go on the road, and it’s a smart screenplay idea to keep her in our minds as the two men travel.
Every racial situation you can think of is addressed, usually in a way consistent with the film’s PG-13 rating, the spoonful of sugar that makes the social-comment medicine go down. Again, though, this is a writer’s success when the focus needs to be on the two main characters and their evolving relationship. This isn’t a film about racism; it’s about two people connecting, growing, and learning in the context of a tour that takes an effete black male boss and a prejudiced white male employee through the Jim Crow south.
Though the inevitable racial conflicts are uncomfortable, perhaps the most disturbing element is the existence of the Green Book (full name: The Negro Motorist Green Book) itself—a guide to the black traveler to the most welcoming (or perhaps more accurately, the least unwelcoming) hotels, service areas, and restaurants. With all the “normal” conflicts presented in the film, perhaps the very existence of the Green Book is the greatest social service the film provides, and the one for which the film may be best remembered.
The film is, with all its all-too-obvious racial encounters, is primarily a warm, lightly funny buddy movie in the context of a road trip. Not challenging, but quite enjoyable.