I’ve never been of the opinion that actors or filmmakers should be limited by the genre in which they became known. There have been way too many examples of comedians doing drama or Oscar winners being hilarious to pigeonhole someone. However, if they do make the switch, they have to prove themselves worthy of that respect.
Writer/director Peter Farrelly, heretofore known for Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something about Mary, and Stuck on You, is for the first time aiming for some dramatic respectability with Green Book. Set in the mid-1960s, it tells the story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a goombah who works in New York nightclubs, and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a highly sought-after concert pianist who lives above Carnegie Hall.
The two become acquainted when Tony agrees to take a job as the driver for Don for a concert tour of the Deep South. Given the racist reception Don expects outside — and sometimes inside — the venues he will play, Tony is there to ensure he is protected at all times. The hours that they spend driving together lead each of them to challenge assumptions they had about the other.
First of all, there’s no bad time to release a movie that preaches racial harmony. We could all do with more examples of people of opposite viewpoints and backgrounds coming together. And the fact that this film flips the script, featuring an uncultured white man finding common ground with a highly educated and talented black man, makes it interesting on the surface.
That said, the broadness of Green Book makes it feel like it’s a movie that’s 20-30 years too late. Mortensen employs a "Noo Yawk" accent so thick that it’s nearly impossible to take him seriously. On the opposite end, Ali plays Tony as so buttoned up that he’s robbed of almost all personality. The story couldn’t scream Odd Couple any louder than it does.
The whole point of the film, which is named after the guide black travelers would use to know where it was safe to stay and eat in the South, is to show how the duo handled themselves in a variety of racially-charged situations. But Farrelly and his co-writers put little nuance in any of those scenes, especially with racist characters Tony and Don encounter, and the film quickly becomes redundant.
Still, either through force of will or just the amount of time they spend together, the relationship between Tony and Don becomes affecting. Their conversations are never all that deep, but it is fun and occasionally thought-provoking to see how they interact with each other.
Likewise, the performances of Mortensen and Ali grow on you, probably because the film goes on for an overlong 130 minutes. They are both fine actors who have earned their Oscar nominations and win, respectively, and their acting skills keep their characters from becoming more stereotypical than they already are.
With so many other recent movies finding a way to address racial issues in both entertaining and considerate methods, Green Book feels like a wrongheaded throwback. It may give you some good feelings, but its message is only half-baked.