Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) prides himself on his talents as a bullshitter. He can talk his way into the hearts of New York power players, talk the police out of putting his friends in prison, and can convince others that he’s not racist, as long as he’s getting paid not to be. He can use a racial slur in one scene, then hang out with non-white companions in the next. Tony is a mess, covered in whatever food he ate last and childishly simple in both the way he talks and writes. Yet Tony can also be charming – a parallel talent for the bullshitter – and a man who stands for what’s right, regardless of prejudices. Green Book is a lot like Tony: it’s sloppy, it’s plain, and full of expected bullshit, but when it needs to lay on the charm, it can do so quite effectively.
In 1962, Tony is working as a bouncer at the Copacabana, until the club closes for repairs. With no income, Tony takes a job interview as a driver that would take him away from his family for two months. The passenger on this journey is brilliant pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is planning on giving a series of concerts in the South. Tony will act as both chauffeur and bodyguard to Don as they drive through states that may not be so welcoming to Don. In fact, almost every stop on Don’s concert tour has a lesson to be learned about discrimination and maturity, as Don plays for the mostly white, affluent audiences that want him to perform, but don’t want him anywhere but on the stage.
The dynamic between Tony and Don – based on their real friendship – is somewhere in the middle of Driving Miss Daisy and The Odd Couple. At times, it’s shocking that Tony is an actual functioning adult, while Don is overly dry, condescending, and lacking any sense of irony. The two obviously start to rub off on each other, as Tony’s letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini) become more romantic, and Don becomes slightly less stuffy in his ways. Beyond their friendship changing each other incrementally, Green Book never shows these characters changing in any truly meaningful way. There’s never a hint that once these two are off the road that Don won’t go back to being stuck in his ways, or that Tony won’t make broad stereotypical statements about people of different ethnicities. Despite what the film would like its audience to believe, there isn’t a major shift in either of these men’s lives, but rather an incremental change due to their friendship that seems greater than it actually is.
That might be due to the screenwriters helming Green Book, which includes Tony’s real son, Nick Vallelonga, first-time writer Brian Hayes Currie, and director Peter Farrelly (of the infamous Farrelly brothers). It’s understandable that Vallelonga would want to paint his father in the most flattering light possible, but gladly doesn’t ignore his problematic choices. Green Book does unfortunately play Tony’s ignorance for laughs far too often, treating him more unaware than actually ignorant. Throughout Farrelly’s career, his films like Dumb and Dumber and Stuck on You have focused on male bonding, in various forms, which is still where he succeeds in Green Book. Even though Tony and Don might be almost comical in their characterizations, their friendship is the beating heart that keeps this film afloat.
As for the performances, Tony is essentially the phrase “fuhgeddaboudit” personified. Mortensen is playing Tony as a collection of every Italian stereotype imaginable, and it’s almost hard to believe the performance isn’t a parody. At the same time, Mortensen goes so big with Tony that it almost forces itself into charm, especially considering how Don’s influence sands his edges a bit. Meanwhile, Ali is equally restrained, playing who he is close to the chest, stoically silent, yet hinting slightly at deep secrets. Don as a character is written to an almost ridiculous level of propriety. At times, Don is almost like a scolding father towards Tony, and Don’s first attempt at eating fried chicken suggests that maybe Don just hasn’t ever seen other humans eat before.
Green Book is yet another film that clumsily tries to break down racial barriers and present the struggles that African Americans have had to face in this country, albeit here without adding much to the conversation. Still, Green Book, with its simple script and bombastic acting choices isn’t the cringe-inducing experience it might seem, thanks to the wonderful bond between Don and Tony. When Farrelly focuses on this friendship, rather than trying to make larger, obvious statements about race, Green Book is a heartwarming and magnetic buddy road trip film that overcomes its frequent missteps.