By Marc S. Sanders
The biggest surprise of Green Book is who its director is, the unlikely Peter Farrelly of The Farrelly Brothers, directors of Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Yet, when I reflect on the film it should not be a surprise. The Farrellys are known for raunchy humor, but often it stems from an honest source. When Viggo Mortensen’s character Tony folds an entire pizza pie in half and then scarfs it down whole, that’s a Farrelly touch but likely also what an Italian club bouncer raised in the Bronx would do without any consideration. He’d also win out in hot dog eating contest. Mortensen’s character is a far cry from his Russian Heyman in Eastern Promises or Stryder in The Lord Of the Rings. The pizza and hot dog scenes are great moments in a film weighted down by the Uncle Tom mentality of Deep South USA in 1962. Peter Farrelly needed to direct this film, and it just might be the best picture of the year.
Tony (or “Tony Lip” as he’s known among his peers) is hired by Dr. Don Shirley played with such eloquence by Mahershala Ali. Dr. Shirley is an African American pianist, arguably the best in the world and ready to embark on a tour of the Midwest to Southeast of the country. It’s not that simple however as Dr. Shirley is all too aware of the racial prejudice that will befall him. Tony is hired to be Dr. Shirley’s driver as he has the toughness to look out for Shirley in the event that it is necessary. Sadly, the film shows that Tony is more than necessary.
There’s much comedy here between Ali, playing the well spoken “Felix” role, against Mortensen in the “Oscar” part. Tony and Don are worlds apart having virtually no understanding how the other half lives or what they are forced to compromise with on a daily basis. The hardships that Green Book offers focus more on Dr. Shirley as he is forced into humiliating circumstances where he is offered only an outhouse to use or denial of entry into a dining room. He could be wearing the sharpest of tuxedos, while Tony is a self aware “goombah” slob with no civility and Dr. Shirley remains the one to be overlooked. His value to Deep South America is to play his Steinway piano like meager jester.
There’s much to learn about our country’s mid 20th century history in Green Book. It’s a film I encourage families with pre-teen children to see. Not only will they learn of disillusioned hatred and treatment of black minority, but they will be entertained as well. References to Robert and John Kennedy are presented as well Aretha Franklin, and a Boston Celtics player (Name I cant recall).
The comedy that Farrelly brings keeps the audience engaged. The best dramas possess great comedy like Steel Magnolias, Terms Of Endearment, The Help, and even Kramer vs Kramer. If we can laugh along with our characters, then we will appreciate them that much more when harm and pain strikes. We want to ease their pain and be angry for them when those moments arrive. Their comedy of natural behaviors breeds affection for them. When they are compromised, we cry for them. Farrelly executes this format perfectly.
Mahershala Ali is a stand out here. He is snobbish at times towards the unmannered Tony but he is never deserving of his dismissiveness. He is a victim of the “colored mentality.” If not for the color of his skin, Dr. Shirley would have been regarded by all as a man of integrity; a hero to the American people. Sadly in 1962, many could not see past skin color. Thankfully, a great moment towards the end reminded me that it was in fact many…but not all. Watch the movie, and then tell me if you know what I’m referring to.
Remember, this is probably the best picture of 2018. Bring your children to see Green Book. Keep your children aware.