Green Book review: The Toronto International Film Festival has truly delivered this year. Despite the likes of Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk, Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased and more all wowing in their different ways, it’s hard to disagree that the subject matter has been a little heavy-going. Leave it to Peter Farrelly to lighten the mood and deliver one of the best films of the lot though in this, our last review from TIFF 2018.
Green Book review [TIFF]
There’s no denying that Green Book deals with a serious subject matter, but it tackles it in such a way that the result is such an uplifting, crowd-rousing spectacle, that it’s hard not walk away with a glorious spring in your step and a huge unashamed smile right across your face.
It’s 1962 New York, our introduction taking place in the lively Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan. Viggo Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga works there but is in serious need of short-term employment as the club is due to shut down for a number of months for a complete refurbishment. The larger-than-life native of The Bronx doesn’t have too many options – despite hustling local gangsters to gain favour, or taking part in hot dog eating contests for cash at his local diner. Step in Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class piano musician who is looking for a driver to aid him on an upcoming trip across the deep south. Tony is recommended to Don, and after an initial interview, gets the job, earning $125 a week for two months. Not only is Tony tasked with getting Don from venue to venue, he is also to protect him from any such hostile situations that may present themselves because of his colour, a book called the Negro Motorist Green Book being their trusty guide on where to stay to avoid such events.
The film, based on true events, tells the story of that trip, to much hilarity. Ali and Mortensen are at the top of their game and have oodles of chemistry in every scene, proving that opposites attract when it comes to true friendship, one that develops as they spend more and more time on the road. Said hostile circumstances do pop up along the way, the musician forced to stay in rather unsavoury surroundings in some cities due to his colour. Don accepts this being the case, but Tony is the straight-talking, no-nonsense character that he is, takes these situations into his own hands – free of any such judgement himself.
Particular stand-out moments in the movie – there are many – including the two’s initial meeting at Don’s home above the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, Don talking down to Tony from a huge throne, ivory tusks and other expensive worldly possessions in the background. There are also scenes of the two on the road, Don helping Tony to write heartfelt letters home to his wife, another with the Italian-American giving Don some Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time (in Kentucky), and the countless, very well staged moments with Ali playing the piano, but it is the many moments of the two bouncing off one another in the car where the film really finds its place.
Despite sounding like a comedy, this is a drama with some really powerful moments, largely due to the amazing talents of Mortensen and particularly Ali. You believe that you are witnessing on-screen the start of what did end up to be an amazing, lifetime friendship. Farrelly shows that he can direct hard-hitting drama as well as comedy, but that was evident in some of the famous Farrelly brothers comedies of the 1990s – if you strip away any of their films, there’s always tons of heart laying beneath all of the gross-out humour.
The 130-minute running time of the film flashes by in heartbeat, and as the final moments arrive, you wish for the film never to end. It’s potentially one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the year – albeit one which carries very serious subject matter, and the filmmakers balance it all perfectly.
I walked from the auditorium, eyes wet from the total enjoyment of a film that I cannot wait to go and see again. Green Book is not only one of the enjoyable films of TIFF 2018, but one of the best of the year. Expect this to be a serious Oscar-contender across too. It’s that good.
Green Book review by Paul Heath, September 2018.