If there was a pleasant surprise at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it was Peter Farrelly‘s interracial buddy movie Green Book, which came out of nowhere to win the festival’s audience award and cement a place for itself in this year’s Oscar race.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony Villelonga, aka Tony Lip, who works security at the Copacabana in New York City. When the club shuts down for a few months, he’s forced to find a new job in order to make ends meet, and he’s offered a gig as a driver. Of course, this is no ordinary job. His boss is Dr. Paul Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned African-American pianist who has decided, with little regard for his own safety, to tour the Deep South, where racism still runs rampant. That’s why he needs a driver who can handle himself on the road, and provide a little muscle in case the circumstances call for it. And so begins their road trip, with Tony’s wife (Linda Cardellini) making sandwiches for the long ride.
Along the way, Dr. Shirley challenges Tony to be better, whether it’s his language or littering on the highway or stealing a jade rock that he “found” on the ground. Of course, Dr. Shirley’s journey is not without its own set of challenges. For example, he performs for the white elite, but they won’t let him eat dinner alongside them, and still treat him like the help rather than the revered artist he is. Sometimes Tony is there to get him out of those racially-charged jams, but there are some sticky situations that he can’t get Dr. Shirley out of, and in fact, only escalates with his lunkheaded machismo. The fact that Dr. Shirley maintains his dignity in the face of all this hatred is a testament to his character, and Ali does justice to the role by maintaining his composure, even when fire burns within his eyes. Perhaps that fire exists because he’s hiding a secret, one that Tony is careful not to judge him for. Mortensen does a wonderful job of showing Tony’s big heart in this surprising sequence, which is quite effective.
In the middle of all of this, Dr. Shirley helps Tony pen love letters to his wife. If there’s a weak element to this film, it’s probably this one, as Tony’s marriage isn’t particularly all that interesting. But it’s important that one of the two leads has a family, if only to contrast the fact that the other doesn’t. Indeed, Dr. Shirley has no family or significant romantic interest, as he is instead surrounded by artifacts from his worldly adventures. That’s why his friendship with Tony — inspired by a true one, as the trailer so helpfully notes — is so meaningful. Even though Tony can’t always find the right words to communicate his feelings, he and Dr. Shirley come to an understanding as men. It may sound Lifetime-y, but it’s actually very touching, brought to life by the grace of two wildly talented performers in sync with each other. Seriously, this film is like a duet, with laughs and tears in equal measure.
The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, which African-American visitors to the South used as a guide to identify which hotels and restaurants would welcome them without hassle. It doesn’t have much bearing on the film — there aren’t a bunch of scenes where Tony consults the book or anything — but it’s actually an interesting way to sell this film, symbolically, at least.
Those who dismiss Green Book as little more than “a reverse Driving Miss Daisy” would be wrong to do so. This is a truly moving, wonderfully charming crowdpleaser that strikes me as perfect film to see with your family over Thanksgiving, when it is scheduled for release. Believe the hype, this is the real deal, and a major accomplishment for director Peter Farrelly. Let this be a lesson not to put filmmakers, or artists of any kind, really, into a box. For in the end, Green Book says it takes more than genius, it takes courage to change people’s hearts. Well it also took some courage for Farrelly to challenge himself with this kind of material, which can be especially tricky in the hands of a white filmmaker, but the audience ate it up, and bolstered by two excellent performances, it may very well prove to be the sleeper hit of awards season.