Filmmakers and performers in comedy are people you should never underestimate in producing drama. Certainly in recent years we’ve seen some notable jumps from campy comedy movies to some of the best dramatic pictures of a given year. Take Steve Carell and his switch from being the butt of jokes to being in constant contention for an Oscar nomination. On the filmmaker’s side is Adam McKay, who went from directing Will Ferrell comedies to winning an Oscar for The Big Short and will have more awards buzz with this year’s Vice. Despite all this evidence, one could never have expected Peter Farrelly to produce such a gem in his first solo outing.
Green Book is inspired by a true story of a friendship in the early 1960s. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is an undereducated and violent Italian-American bouncer, while Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a posh and collected African-American pianist. The latter employs the former as a driver and security as he tours the US Deep South.
Farrelly was known for working with his brother Bobby, with whom he’s produced classic raunchy comedies like There’s Something About Mary or the two Dumb and Dumbers. It seems like a great departure then to take on a film that relies on subtlety and a tranquil directing hand, but the American filmmaker proves to be incredibly adept. The film is a relish to behold as every scene is brought about to life with incredibly reality. There are countless examples of how racism is acted upon in this movie in subtle ways, first by Tony himself as he throws away two glasses that black plumbers had used in his home, or in African-American field-workers glancing up in astonishment to Don, seeing him driven by a white man. The subtleties are littered throughout as evidence of the mistreatment of the times, but Farrelly is able to not fall into the classic error of seeing everything in black and white. Many 60s set films can oversimplify things and have racists seem spiteful and full of knowing contempt, Green Book portrays such prejudice as rooted in custom and reflex; these bigots don’t understand what they’re doing is wrong. Such a perspective serves a sense of realism as well as giving racism a more tragic turn. What’s worse: knowing you’re doing evil or being ignorant of the hurt you’re perpetrating?
The film hinges on the forming of a friendship, and given that Tony already had a certain racist aura to him, I was skeptical that the story could be pulled off in a believable manner (regardless of it being true or not). It would have been easy to have one character simply be submissive to the other, changing their whole ways in order to appease this other (or the audience), something seen in Driving Miss Daisy. Such a path would have betrayed the essence of the characters, but Farrelly is able to avoid this pitfall by having a very gradual confidence build up, with small scenes chipping away at the prejudices each character has of the other.
Watching Mortensen and Ali you’re conscious that you’re seeing two actors at the top of their game. Mortensen completely plays against his type, gone are his cool and collected turns as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, or the Russian mobster in Eastern Promises, the ex-hitman in A History of Violence, or even the unconventional patriarch in Captain Fantastic. The Dane brings about an unrecognizable turn, changing his voice as well as his appearance; the result is so immersive you forget you’re watching an actor at all. Meanwhile Ali brings about echoes of his House of Cards character Remy Danton, as well as giving Don a pent up anger that slowly seeps out and becomes contagious for Tony and viewers alike.
Every year a film can be picked out that seems “complete,” checking all the boxes and bringing about a perfect balance, while providing entertainment and enlightenment. Some previous years it was Spotlight or Argo, this year it’s Green Book; the film is a tour de force for its performers and director.