dir: Peter Farrelly
Yes the fact that this got nominated for things at the thingie ceremony in late Feb / early March is the only reason I saw this. Otherwise I probably would have skipped it, not that I’m against touching stories where a low-rent mob palooka and a prissy African-American pianist reach across the racial divide and make America a better place by doing so.
I would have skipped it because on paper, in ads, conceptually and aesthetically, it did not appeal to me on any level, despite starring two actors that I adore. Viggo Mortensen is a tremendous man and a wonderful actor, and I’ve loved him in almost everything I’ve ever seen him in. And Mahershala Ali has been magnificent on tv, in movies and, like, probably even when he walks down the street or just out the front door to get his newspaper, very convincing, totally believable. Mahershala has charisma and presence to burn 99% of the time, so the stage is set for a feel-good movie you could take your grandmother too, that could just as easily have had Ebony & Ivory playing in it, that would also win heaps of awards from the less than discerning voters of the Academy, thank you, thank you, this is such an honour, I’d like to thank the Academy, and my agent etc etc…
That this is based on a couple of people who existed in human history does not make it a documentary, and a lot of critics point to discrepancies between what Doc Shirley’s surviving family say about their time together, and what Tony Vallelonga’s family say happened, as if either of the two sets of gold-diggers / reality deniers would really know. Even better, several times in the film Tony takes pride in announcing to the world that he’s famous for his well-earned nickname ‘Lip’ because of his propensity and alacrity with bullshitting people at any and all times.
Plus, not to be too rude, but who the fuck is Don Shirley anyway, and why should we care? I mean, he’s no Freddie Mercury / Jackson Maine / Lady Gaga, is he.
So perhaps the most accurate rendering of what this film is about, is that this movie is based on a story Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga told anyone who would listen about the time he drove a famous pianist around. Is that so complicated?
Well, it’s complicated by the time in which this happened, and the myriad of levels that people feel the need to argue and discount people’s stories these days (I guess it was always thus and always thus shall be). Some critics have dismissed the film saying a) it’s all bullshit, b), it’s a white saviour narrative, c) the road trip did happen, but not like this, d) bloody Hollywood pushing its agendas on us.
It’s pretty lazy. That’s not to say that the screenplay or the overall story is that complicated, sensitive, nuanced or radical. It’s standard Hollywood pablum. It’s so formulaic that it gives formulas indigestion.
But almost every flick is formulaic. It’s called storytelling. There’s a beginning, a middle and an ending. People are recognisable types, they start in a particular place, they undergo experiences, then we leave them where they are, in either a better or a worse place, and then we go on with our lives.
Tony and Don spend a couple of months together (in reality it was more like a year and a half), driving around the States, mostly in the South, having fairly mundane adventures. They don’t solve any crimes, they don’t change the future, they don’t end Jim Crow or get the Voting Rights Act signed, but they do their thing, and that’s all we can reasonably ask for.
At the start of the film Tony is a loosely – tangentially mob affiliated but not in the mob kinda goon who works at the kind of nightclub, called the Copacabana, that the goombas from Goodfellas definitely hung out in. He’s a big brute who gets the job done, whatever the job is, and he’s happy to beat the shit out of unruly customers if they give him any lip.
He is meant to be an everyman, a relatable kinda working class who loves his family and talks a lot with his hands. Let me just point out that anyone who is offended that Viggo, who is clearly not an Italian American, is playing an Italian American, where were you when Viggo played a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises? If it wasn’t a big deal then, why is it a big deal now? And also, if both of them are wrong should he only ever be playing famous Danish Americans on screen?
Which means he’ll never work again ever, you controlling jerks. He’s racist (the character), as in he’s clearly, personally, racist. They try to make it seem like, eh, all the other members of his family (except for his wife, naturally, played by Linda Cardellini) are racist, at least the men, so it’s not so bad, because everyone was doing it, why not him? When two African American plumbers fix something in his house, and he sees his wife give them a refreshing drink, he throws away the glasses once they’re gone. Now that’s racist.
As if glasses grow on trees or something. Through not having any money coming in, through financial necessity, he sort of almost applies for a job as a driver to someone he thinks is a doctor. At the top of Carnegie Hall, he is ushered into the strangely sumptuous surrounds of “Doc” Don Shirley’s domain, an odd chap who wears a muumuu despite not being a huge guy. He is very arch, very sharply spoken, as if he’s going to be wrapped over the knuckles if he doesn’t over-enunciate every syllable by a particularly vicious nun.
Tony, naturally, is horrified at the potential prospect of having to work for a *shock* *horror* African-American man. The very idea makes his skin horripilate. What would the moronic and maleducated members of his family think if he had to bow and scrape to an employer so much more accomplished than himself? Nah, his ego couldn’t’ hack it, best to starve and watch his family thrown into the street.
His practical wife, however, sees clearly that they need the money and that the script didn’t really have any other way to compel them together other than having his wife tell him that she thinks it’s a good idea and that he has to do it for his family.
So, begrudgingly at first, they commence upon their journey. Right off the bat we know, unless you’ve never seen any movies before, like, ever, that the lines of difference between them, if they weren’t sharply drawn enough before, right now have to start off with the two of them being utterly, incredibly, diametrically opposite. You could probably not get a more sterling or emphatic example of the Dionysian / Apollonian dramaturgical dyad than this, or at least it’s the most recent / prominent. Not only are there a myriad of differences between the life experiences of the two men, they are at completely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to what they seek or want out of life. Tony is no gourmand, but he is all about stuffing his face at each and every opportunity, even when he’s driving.
Don is horrified by this unseemly behaviour. Also, think of the Cadillac’s upholstery! The reserved and haughty intellectual wouldn’t be caught dead eating with gusto, with relish or any other condiments / adjectives denoting passionate consumption of food.
Not only that, but because of his unique upbringing, he’s not really down with the current African-American pop culture references or cuisine. It falls to Tony to introduce ivory tower Don to the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I’m not joking, not even about the branding. There’s actually – no shit, no lying – a scene where an Italian American sort of mobster teaches an African-American how to eat fried chicken, and then dispose of the bones by throwing them out of the window of a moving car.
In a way, it’s a hilarious scene. In another way, it’s flat-out one of the strangest scenes I’ve seen in a film for many a year. Does the scene work? I am not sure. It is, in its own way, weirder than almost anything David Lynch managed in his return to Twin Peaks last year. The sheer wonder of it. I couldn’t help but wonder what Mahershala Ali was thinking, not as the character, but as the actor, during the scene.
Did it happen? I have no idea. It’s often been said that fiction is stranger than fact, because fiction has to make sense, and all sorts of crazy shit happens in this life for which there are no precedents or logic. It’s meant to indicate to us, the gaping mouthed stunned mullets in the audience that the uptight Don is learning to appreciate the nastier / more enjoyable aspects of life by loosening up a little and gettin’ some “dirty bird” into his system.
It’s just…when you see it, you have to shake your head.
As they travel on down the road, the issues that are at stake seem to have more to do with the class differences between the two men, the differences in education and their individual approaches towards the world, but it’s also about the times, the places and the moments where Don’s ‘prestige’ or wealth can’t protect him from the shittiness of White America, and the bizarre circumstances when it does.
The film takes its title from the guide book Tony has to use to find accommodations for Don during their travels. It specifically points out the hotels he’s allowed to stay at (that will serve African-Americans) and the restaurants / bars that will do likewise. Unspoken, because it’s so horribly obvious, is that any other place by default will see him turned away or worse just because he’s black.
None of that is hard to believe, because the guide existed, and because the South famously still exists as well. The difficulty appears because, well, it comes down to a question of character. Tony, being the egotistical shlub that he is, is entirely external, he thinks or feels something, and he says it. Don is …not like that. He is entirely internal, and rarely explains himself, and never in an expansive way. Of course the flick is going to obligate him to eventually give a big speech with which to earn golden statues, don’t you know, but 99 per cent of the time, he is so controlled it’s hard to know entirely why he is putting himself through this what I would call appalling experience.
The film goes to great lengths to point out how unlike other African-Americans Don is. He is relatively wealthy, he can obviously afford a mob driver, he has a record contract, people love to hear him play his jazzy tunes. But his true love is classical music, and people seem to be nervous about letting him play the whitest of music for the whitest of people.
His wealth means he doesn’t face much of what those south of the Mason – Dixon line (or let’s face it, anywhere in the States regardless still face), and yet he wants to see and feel how they’re living in these troubled times. So, yes, he knows where the Green Book says he can’t go, but he wants to know if the fact that he is Dr Don Shirley, piano prodigy and composer, makes any difference in a racist bar or town, or in the homes of the landed gentry who love to hear him play. And, as he and Tony find out, much to Tony’s horror (because now he’s no longer as racist as he started off), it doesn’t. These fucking people, whether they’re wealthy or not, hate black people, and care not one whit what their accomplishments or personal qualities may be.
One of the (two) most affecting scenes for me was when Don brought out a makeup container, particular to his shade of skin, in order to cover up his bruises and contusions. What shocked me was not that he would do so, but that he would have the concealer with him, anticipating that he would need it for just this purpose.
I don’t know how true the depiction of his personality is, or any of it, for that matter, because I personally knew nothing about the man before watching the flick, and it does seem a bit excessive, but the most unfortunate element is that it forces an actor as charismatic as Mahershala to be so subdued, so flat in a lot of ways, that it might complement the story, but it compromises the performance. Tony, by default, feels like a more lived-in character, and is the one (if it can be said that either of them has that much of a character arc, which might be a stretch) who achieves some level of growth. At the very least Don teaches him (somehow) to be more loving towards his wife and family.
The other stunning (perhaps baffling) scene involves the car getting a flat tire next to a field where African-American farmhands are scratching in the dirt. They watch as a different African-American, being Don, sits imperiously in the back seat of a car, as a pasty white guy slaves over the spare tire to get them going again. On one of the elders stares at Don, and you can only fathom as to the level of confusion that he must be experiencing.
It’s a surprisingly enjoyable film, not despite but because of its subject matter, and because of what looks like a horrible and anodyne set of clichés (being the odd couple pairing and the standard road trip bullshit), but it manages to wrench some very genuine emotion out of this strangely unique set up. I think it’s a better film than a lot of critics allowed for, but I think there’s a lot of predictable pre-emptive complaints from a lot of people that guess about the film’s racial politics without having to, you know, watch the bloody thing in order to have an informed opinion.
Green Book is not the Driving Miss Daisy of the late 2010s that we want, but it’s the Driving Miss Daisy of the late 2010s that we deserve.
7 times you think that Viggo could have said “forget about it” in a sentence and get away with it out of 10
“ It's amazing you said that. "How 'bout some quiet time?" Dolores, my wife, used to say that all the time... Well, not all the time but, y'know, she says it when, when I come home from work sometime, you know, she been with the kids all day and she'll say, "Tony? How 'bout some quiet time?" Exactly like how you said it! I mean, it's amazing...” – Green Book