M, 2 hrs 10 mins
Capitol Cinema Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre
Review by © Jane Freebury
A highly entertaining movie released weeks ago and in a major upset won the Oscar for Best Film. Green Book has since had a new lease of life at the box office, which was to be expected. Although it can’t be deemed a progressive film, on the strength of its performances the award is very well deserved.
Made on a relatively small production budget, it was cruising along well enough before the Oscar windfall, attracting some negative reviews but strong word of mouth, for its humour, its humanity and outstanding lead actor performances.
Indeed, it has had surprising box office success around the world, where it is well ahead of other best film nominees, BlakkKlansman, The Favourite and Vice. It has been doing well in China, which is interesting.
A key issue with Green Book is that it could so easily have been made 50 years ago, during the decade of civil rights movements
The film’s title appropriates the name of a travel guide for black Americans in the Deep South that infamously identified the places where they would be welcome. There are some scenes demonstrating the appalling depths to which racial prejudice can stoop, but the title Green Book is in my view a clumsy attempt to attach a kind of high seriousness to itself that it doesn’t actually have.
When In the Heat of the Night came out in 1967 it was a riveting, indignant crime drama combining Sidney Poitier’s elegant black northerner detective with Rod Steiger’s rough, racist southerner policeman. They were investigating a murder together in Mississippi. That film showed how mutual, professional and personal respect could grow and prosper across the racial divide, something that Green Book does as well.
If Green Book isn’t alert and ‘woke’ enough to racial injustice in society, its qualities need not be dismissed for these reasons alone. It is a gentle, odd couple relationship comedy in which the lead character has the opportunity to improve.
Based on true events, it tracks a 3-month trip undertaken by Tony ‘The Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a rough and tumble bouncer from the Bronx, and the elegant black American concert pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who hired him as a driver and minder for a concert tour of the American South.
It is a road movie and hence belongs to that genre that narrates a quintessential journey towards understanding, enlightenment, or disillusion – what you will.
Mortensen’s character, a crude, casually racist and rather ignorant person, gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it
Despite the reservations, Green Book has a lot going for it. Namely, a truly outstanding character study of a rather crude, casually racist and ignorant person, Mortensen’s character, who gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it.
Mortensen declined the fat suit option, by the way, and acquired 20 kilos for the role to help keep the production budget down.
Playing opposite him as the refined and educated black maestro, Shirley, Mahershala Ali won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance.
Given the popular contenders, A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, and other excellent nominees, Roma and The Favourite, Green Book’s Oscar for best film, was a surprise for all, not just Spike Lee. Granted, it’s not great cinema, but Green Book is a showcase for two outstanding performances – one formally recognised with the best supporting actor that also went to Mahershala Ali.
A best film Oscar is a major windfall for director, Peter Farrelly, who contributed some of the earliest ‘gross out’ comedies like There’s Something About Mary and hasn’t exactly distinguished himself to this point. The direction is workmanlike, but he had a hand co-writing the lively and engaging screenplay with collaborators including Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son).
It is Viggo Mortensen who had the biggest hand in making Green Book the film it is.
The Academy may wake up to this a few years down the track and give him the Oscar that should be on his mantelpiece now. It’s the way it works.
Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7