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Critic After Dark

Green Book
Directed by Peter Farrelly

A FARRELLY movie up for the Oscars?

Green Book is Peter Farrelly going at it solo (his brother Bob didn’t join in for personal reasons), doing a period picture (for the first time) that has since earned serious Oscar talk (for the first time). It follows the reasonably true story of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who’s doing a concert tour of the Midwest and segregated Deep South, and hires as chauffeur and bodyguard one “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), army veteran and nightclub bouncer, presently unemployed.

You’ve been here before: The Odd Couple, The Defiant Ones, Driving Miss Daisy — basically two people of different races, temperament, or social positions, forced to spend time with each other, in this case a car driving through rural America. This variation has two men, the white a lower-class slob, the black an upper-class snob, the white man behind the steering wheel. They go through stuff. They eat (a lot), and quarrel. They share a couple of laughs.

So how far does Mr. Farrelly get with fairly serious real-life drama? Pretty far, actually. Helps that Mr. Mortensen gets plenty of mileage from a broadly Brooklyn Italian accent (“You shouldna punched out da foreman.” “Well he shouldna woke me up.”) — for anyone who watches Scorsese films and Joe Pesci comedies, perfectly familiar territory from which to launch a long journey. He’s a bullshit artist, as he readily admits, to which Don asks: “You’re proud of that?” “It got me this job.”

Ali’s Don Shirley (you almost want to say in the back of your mind “shirty”) functions as an effective foil to Mr. Mortensen’s loud gregarious bluecollar joe, flinching at an offered piece of fried chicken (“I told you not to get grease on my blanket.” “Oooo I’m gonna get grease on my blanket!”), ordering Tony to back up the car to pick up discarded rubbish. It’s in the not-always-subtle details that the movie lives — Tony an unspoken racist (he tosses a drinking glass used by a black worker in his apartment), Don an understated elitist (when they first meet — in Don’s luxurious apartments above Carnegie Hall — Tony slouches on a couch while Don ascends to a throne), and how — predictably, but with some spin on old tropes — the two wear down each other’s rough edges smooth.

If Tony is the movie’s comic engine (with Don providing good accompaniment) Don’s narrative provides some of the dramatic heft, and arguably some of what we see that we haven’t seen before involves Don’s alienated sense of self — how his troubled relations with his brother distances him from his family, how his relative wealth and education distances him from much of the black community. He feels the need to reach out but on his terms, hence the concert tour.

How true is that portrait? The Shirley family denies this characterization of Don’s relationship with his family and with Tony. Mr. Farrelly concedes the former, though audio recordings from Don himself (used in Josef Astor’s documentary Lost Bohemia, about the artists living above the Hall) tend to support the latter assertion.

Putting all that aside (past a certain point accusations of historical distortion, as Shakespeare might agree, seem academic) does the movie — in itself, on its own terms — work? The Farrelly brothers aren’t known for their memorable camerawork or subdued storytelling but what they are known for is this gift for outrage comedy that can be put to remarkably deft use, can allow them license to say things most filmmakers would be condemned for saying (in the case of There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin [my favorite of their work], and Me, Myself, and Irene, how physical and mental disabilities don’t mark afflicted folk as separate from the rest of the world).

Maybe my biggest problem with Green Book is that the Farrellys, like this movie’s Don, scored their biggest successes (artistic if not commercial) on their terms, with grossout humor that celebrates the grotesque and the different — cut through the bullshit, get straight to the point. This — Peter without his brother Bob — is more like standard-issue Oscar bait, familiarly friendly fare meant to educate the already enlightened on the finer points of racism. The latter half of the picture is considerably more sombre, some of the lively electricity that informs earlier scenes channeled to a less jagged hum of indignation — Don has learned to appreciate his own community’s culture while Tony has decided to stand up against all the rampant discrimination: hooray and applause.

Come to think of it where else was this storyline supposed to go? Come to think further, the Farrellys usually flail about for an ending; you remember their work more for isolated moments than for well-structured storylines (no scene of Tony and Don sharing a hotel bed, Tony farting into his blanket, smothering Don with the reeking sheet, alas).

Does this movie deserve an Oscar nomination? I suppose — it’s middlebrow enough, wants to please everyone badly enough. But I like to think that for a while there, particularly during the picture’s first half, it was something a little more: ruder, cruder, less artistic with the bullshit.

MTRCB Rating:PG