Behind the jokes about lacerated genitalia and mutts on drugs, the sentimental streak in the Farrelly brothers’ comedies always ran wider than Jim Carrey’s gurning kisser. With that in mind, Peter Farrelly’s race-themed buddy movie looks like a more organic gear-change than might otherwise have been expected.
Despite the absence of chemically enhanced pets, his transition from fart-powered anarchy to heart-powered uplift proves a satisfyingly smooth one, if you didn’t mind the sentimentality in the first place. For Farrelly the elder, it’s also a canny shift. The family brand of gross-out humour peaked with There’s Something About Mary (1998), before enjoying a fondly extended stay of life up to and including Stuck on You (2003). But the precipitous decline begun by The Heartbreak Kid (2007) gathered pace until Dumb and Dumber to (2014), where the brothers’ bid to recapture former glories seemed so forced that they couldn’t even score laughs with a cat named Butthole getting crazy on meth.
Farrelly’s response is to tap that reliable resource of respectable makeovers, the “inspired by a true story” tale. Flipping the ratio of character to comedy so that the gags take second position to the people involved, Farrelly focuses on the Jim Crow-era bond between no-filter Italian-American bouncer Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and urbane Jamaican-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). With the film’s title nodding to a travel guide for black people (“Vacation without aggravation”), the lead duo’s relationship begins when Tony takes a job as driver for the Doc’s 1962 concert tour of the Deep South – a trip fraught with potential for trouble.
If the set-up evokes Driving Miss Daisy upended, both the cast and Farrelly’s previous form with road-driven odd couples deepen and sharpen the ride. As Tony takes the wheel of a shiny Cadillac and Shirley sits upright in the back, Farrelly (co-writing with Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son) exploits the sizeable cultural gap between them for laughs and drama. They bicker initially, largely because Tony never stops smoking, eating, and talking. Then they begin to bond, aided by Tony’s gift of the gab and Shirley’s way with the written word. See, Tony can talk his way outta trouble but he don’t read so well, so the Doc helps him write letters to Mrs. Lip, the stoical Dolores (Linda Cardellini, underused here).
If Farrelly’s main reference points for his mismatched buddy set-up are ’80s hits Rain Man and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Green Book likewise benefits hugely from its note-perfect lead pairing. After a career ranging from the ruggedly poetic Aragorn to his violent, soulful, orally fixated leads for David Cronenberg (see A Dangerous Method’s Sigmund Freud), Mortensen shows us something fresh here, not least the extra weight on his gut. When Tony bins two glasses in his house after black workers have used them, he seems merely to be an irredeemable creature of little sensitivity and vast appetites – no passing pizza is safe in his vicinity.
But, as Dr. Shirley’s recurrent encounters with racism open Tony’s eyes wider than his ever-hungry gob, Mortensen and Farrelly find ways to soften him persuasively. Meanwhile, Ali plays the straight man to Mortensen’s wild card with controlled assurance. Slowly unpeeling hints of the Doc’s anger and isolation, he upholds his dignity as a contrasting mirror to racist America’s lack of such. Sadly, Farrelly brushes over his sexuality, but the chemistry between the leads sings with such ease that you rarely notice as Tony and Don change before your eyes.
But it’s on the occasions when you do notice that Farrelly makes his biggest stumbles. When Tony tells the Doc about Little Richard and fried chicken, you gag on the implication: is Tony presuming to lecture Don about black culture? Later, a roadside surprise offers a cockle-warming twist too far, reflected in a soundtrack that often labours to pluck our emotional responses like violins.
The ameliorating factors are Farrelly’s easy way with character and broad sense of humanism. Awards-bait or not, Green Book plays as a deftly disarming film about friendship and unity in divisive times: calculated, perhaps, but calculated from a kind, sincere place. It opens with someone saying, “Thank you all for coming to see us.” It ends with another, more spoiler-y “thank you.” In between, as Farrelly’s scrupulously well-mannered appeal to people’s better natures gets into its impeccably cast groove, the heartwarming pleasure is all ours.
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- Release date: Out now (US)/February 1, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: PG-13 (US)/12A (UK)
- Running time: 130 mins