This year the BFI London Film Festival included Peter Farrelly’s comedy-drama Green Book as its ‘Surprise Film’ selection, and off the bat I will say it is far from a disappointment for viewers! The story focuses on the real-life music tour of black pianist Don Shirley, and how this illustrious musician forms an unlikely friendship with an Italian nightclub bouncer, Tony Lip, as the duo travel through the deep south of America (with Lip acting as Shirley’s chauffeur during this tour).
And to quickly address the true weight of this story that some may be unaware of, just as I initially was, the title Green Book itself refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book of the 1960s, which was a segregation-era guidebook used to help African-Americans dealing with racial discrimination issues, and Jim Crow laws whilst travelling. Basically it was an outline of hotels black Americans were allowed to stay with or restaurants they could eat at during this unfortunate era.
However, even with this intense topic being explored that doesn’t stop Farrelly (appropriately) including many of the more delightful human moments and heart-warming comedy that can be found between the chemistry of these two leads. It’s part buddy-cop, part charming road trip, and part tragic exploration of American racism and cultural issues.
Examining this further, if you are unaware of director Peter Farrelly’s work but thought the name seemed familiar, it’s because this isn’t his first outing and his work is vividly in our pop-culture zeitgeist. Farrelly is an experienced director and screenwriter who, together with his brother Bobby, is responsible for many successful raunchy comedies, such as Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, and There’s Something About Mary.
So, yeah, with all due respect to the filmmaker, we could always expect a competent film from Farrelly, but no one expected a dramatic bio-pic that tackles issues such as racism and class in the USA. And with that, he’s pleasantly defied those expectations. Green Book is a real treat of a film. Touching and charismatic throughout, with the ability to masterfully transition between witty comedy and intense drama when required.
I won’t discuss the story in much further detail, as even considering this is bio-pic I don’t want to give away spoilers when this film is a while away from public distribution (plus it might help give you the same amusing ‘surprise’ experience I had). But I can confirm it’s a wonderfully concise narrative. This film is perhaps perfectly structured when considering the small, subjective tale it’s focusing on, that also exists in a further biographical context.
It explores the 60s era, and extended lives of these real-life characters, via simple acute attention to detail whilst still focusing on the intimate few months of Don Shirley’s tour. With little knowledge of the production’s specific process, that delicate quality might be helped by the fact this film is co-written by Nick Vallelonga – the real-life son of protagonist Tony Lip, and so (presumably) he may have contributed that added layer of closeness in some ways.
Extending on from that, the cast and visual design is absolutely enticing in the most undemanding way. Our two leads are Academy nominated actors, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (a winner for the recent Moonlight), who play Tony and Don respectively. And they both own these roles with powerful yet subtle charisma. They effortlessly live and breathe these characters during their screen time, holding the film to our attention throughout, while the cast around them supports this to the utmost complimentary degree.
Additionally, the set design and world-building utilised in the film makes the 1960s American setting feel beautifully authentic. Unlike some other period films that come to mind (and shall remain nameless), Green Book goes beyond its budget. The film maintains a heart-warming and intimate approach to the era, giving a genuinely charming yet sometimes suitably unsettling atmosphere.
Simply put, once this film hits widespread release you should all watch it. It’s really got the warmth of an easy-watching comedy, that will amuse and entertain you for an evening, but also has the dramatic weight shared by some of the higher calibre bio-pics in cinematic history. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but objectively I can’t think of a fault in this film. Farrelly has surprised many a viewer here, and I personally can’t wait to see what he does next, if this is the direction he’s taking with his career. I now expect this to turn some heads come awards season (both in its cast and crew), and if you do as I suggest, hopefully it turns your heads too.
Green Book is set to be released 21st November 2018 in the USA and 1st February 2019 in the UK (further foreign dates vary).