Published Nov 16, 2018While the advance buzz surrounding Green Book (the People's Choice Award winner at TIFF) had suggested that Peter Farrelly, one half of the sibling duo behind such classic raunchy comedies as Dumb & Dumber and There's Something About Mary, had done the unthinkable and made a prestige drama, the truth is that the film isn't really as far out of his wheelhouse as it might initially seem.
At its heart, it's a simple and somewhat formulaic buddy road movie (like Dumb & Dumber) about two mismatched men learning to expand their worldviews, but Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali bring such depth and humour to this crowd-pleaser, inspired by a true story, that they manage to elevate it all the way to bona fide Oscar contender.
Mortensen is Tony Vallelonga (affectionately known as "Lip"), a tough Italian meathead who's throwing out riff-raff at the Copacabana club in 1960s New York when we first meet him. With the club closing due to renovations, he's in need of some work to help take care of his wife (Linda Cardellini) and kids. So naturally when he's contacted about a chauffeur gig, he jumps at the opportunity. But with the job requiring him to serve as valet for an African-American classical pianist on a tour of the South, it's certainly not without its inherent difficulties. And that's not even considering the peculiar guy he'd be driving.
Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) lives a sheltered life above Carnegie Hall in a lavish suite appointed with all sorts of expensive artefacts, complete with a throne that he sits on when he first interviews Tony. The two unsurprisingly have little in common, but Tony comes highly recommended, so they set off together in a car rented by the record company for the tour.
Tony grates on Dr. Shirley's nerves initially with his incessant yammering and uncouth demeanour, but before long, the two start to warm up to each other and find an unlikely friendship growing as they begin to share more of their lives, whether willingly or not at times.
Of course, the chief obstacle in both their burgeoning relationship and Dr. Shirley's tour of the American South is the roiling undercurrent of unavoidable racism infecting the country. Tony shows signs of being a racist himself, with an early scene depicting him throwing out drinking glasses that had been used by some black workers. The film's somewhat repetitive structure sees their bonding regularly beset by the horrific actions and remarks of those they encounter along the way, testing Tony's allegiance to "Doc" and the lengths he's willing to go to fulfill his obligation by making every show on the tour.
It's an altogether unique brand of prejudice Dr. Shirley faces too, that sees rich white people dress up in their best attire to celebrate a concert by the prodigiously talented pianist, only to then turn around and insist that the performer use a decidedly inferior bathroom facility than they do. But the film wisely isn't only preoccupied with the various cruelties visited upon Dr. Shirley during their travels — there's also an interesting examination of the ways that Dr. Shirley has enjoyed certain privileges over other members of his race and is forced to confront the fact that he may have isolated himself to the point that he can barely identify with the lifestyles and hardships of other people with his own skin colour.
If all that makes the film sound like some serious racial drama, rest assured that the patented Farrelly touch provides plenty of laughs throughout. Most of these come courtesy of Mortensen, who has clearly put on some pounds for the role and leans heavily on well-worn Italian stereotypes so as to better underline their opposing personalities for comic effect. Ali has the more thankless role, all buttoned-up repression and overwhelming air of arrogance, but he has a couple of scenes where he's forced to drop all pretence and unfurls himself in displays of vulnerability and pain that show why exactly he has spent so long insulating himself from the harsh outside world.
A movie like this can't help but rest on its central relationship and, by extension, the actors bringing that relationship to life. Confined in a car with just these two guys for long stretches, just as they are with each other, the movie would be an awful slog if they weren't people you wanted to be around and know more about. It's a testament to how effective the movie is that by the time they reach their destination, we're not ready for the trip to end.