Saturday, December 15, 2018

Green Book (2018): A Review


The way I talked my mother into seeing Green Book was by comparing it to Driving Miss Daisy. I leave it to you to decide whether the comparison is valid, but there's more than a hint of truth to the stories of interracial journeys in automobiles. Green Book has had some blow-back over whether it is accurate and/or told through a proper perspective. For myself, Green Book is a pleasant tale of two wildly different men whose interactions reshape some of their ways for the better.

Brooklyn goombah Frank Vallelonga, better known as 'Tony Lip' (Viggo Mortensen) is pretty happy with himself. A bouncer with the gift of gab, he seems able to get around through somewhat questionable methods. When the Copacabana Club is closed (in part due in secret to Tony) he applies to be a driver for what he thinks is a doctor.

Technically, he's correct, but Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is not a physician. He's a Doctor of Music, a classical pianist who is embarking on a U.S. tour, part of which will take him to the Deep South. This won't be an easy tour, as Dr. Shirley is black. Dr. Shirley is also a bit of an elitist snob: highly cultured and upright, he and the thoroughly uncouth muscle that is Tony make for the oddest of odd couples.

Dr. Shirley is fully aware of the dangers he faces as a black man touring the South, so he is smart enough to know that Tony Lip's habit of 'punching first and not bothering with questions' may be helpful. As the Don Shirley Trio go on their tour, Tony sends letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardinelli), poorly written and always ending with 'kiss the kids for me', his devotion to his wife and children about the only real qualities he has.

Image result for green book movieAs the journey continues, their unique circumstances make for sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic culture clashes. Dr. Shirley is appalled at Tony's boorish manners and ability to eat while driving. Tony is astonished that 'Doc', despite being black, has never heard Chubby Checker or Little Richard, and worse, has never eaten fried chicken. Tony assumes that Doc, being black, would know this almost by osmosis.

Then again, Tony wouldn't know what 'osmosis' is, probably figuring it was some kind of Greek god.

Tony also sees some of the sadness and isolation Dr. Shirley has, along with the various indignities he has to endure despite his sophistication and talent. As his driver/road manager/bodyguard, Tony gets Doc out of scrapes, sometimes of Shirley's own making.

Ultimately, both learn from each other. Tony learns a bit about the beauty of culture, the courage to face discrimination and the unpleasantness of it and takes Doc's dictation on expressing himself better through the letters Tony writes to his wife. Doctor Shirley learns to accept the nobility of the common man, to reach out to others in genuine friendship and the joys of fried chicken.

We learn that after their journey, ending on Christmas Day 1962, their friendship continued to the end of their lives, with them dying three months apart in 2013.

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It's a curious thing that the title object is barely touched on. The 'Green Book' in Green Book refers to the 'Negro Motorist Green Book', a travel guide specifically for African-Americans in this era, which directed the black traveler as to what establishments would welcome them. I think Tony probably consulted this 'green book' maybe twice, but for all intents and purposes Green Book was less about the title object and more about the journey both literal and figurative of our two characters.

Green Book is a good old-fashioned story about unlikely friends, people from totally different worlds who by the end grow to appreciate, perhaps even love the other. If one sees the film, we see that Tony and Dr. Shirley maintain most of their original worldview. However, we also see that they have changed once they got to know each other.

Early on, Tony threw away two glasses that black plumbers used while in his home. At the end of the film, he proudly has a black man for Christmas dinner. The upright Dr. Shirley berates Tony for trying to take a stone at a road-stop that had fallen off the display. Near the end as they race back through a storm to try and get home for Christmas, Dr. Shirley calmly suggests to Tony to 'put his lucky rock' on the dashboard, fully aware of Tony's sticky fingers but accepting it.

Image result for green book movieAs Green Book was co-written by one of Tony's sons (Nick Vallelonga, along with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly), you can figure Tony is going to be shown in a relatively positive light. His racism comes from his background as a less educated self-described 'guinea'. It helps, or hurts, that Mortensen seems to play a stereotypical Italian-American who would fit in perfectly at the Jersey Shore. His performance, while a bit broad for my taste, did grow on me.

Ali is his better as the elegant yet troubled Dr. Shirley. Some of his problems are external: the racism, the indignities he endures. Some, however, are internal: his aloofness from almost everything and everyone. For better or worse though, both his growing alcoholism and homosexuality are barely touched on.

Granted, Green Book wasn't about those issues, but they were introduced with little to no follow-through.

Still, while not perfect Green Book has moments of genuine warmth between this two disparate characters both amusing and endearing. We go from Tony's uncomprehending compliment to Dr. Shirley about 'the orphans album', referring to Shirley's Orpheus in the Underworld to Dr. Shirley, after giving Tony a beautiful passage to send his wife, telling Tony that ending the message with "P.S. Kiss the kids for me" is 'perfect'.

Green Book should not be thought of as a final say on the ugliness of racial intolerance or a statement that racism is done with. It should be seen as a film about two men from totally different worlds who found something very special: true friendship despite their differences.

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Frank Vallelonga: 1927-2013
Dr. Don Shirley: 1930-2013


2019 Best Picture Winner: Parasite

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