I fucking love Viggo Mortensen. The picky actor has made a career out of choosing only roles that speak to him. As a result, he has chosen some great projects, but has largely stayed out of the mainstream viewing public’s eye since 2009’s The Road. Quite the turn for the man who starred in one of the biggest film franchises of all time. But those who haven’t been paying attention are at a loss, he has had quite the versatile career. He shows his artistry yet again with the decent, though at times heavy handed, Green Book.
The film is named after the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide that helped black travelers traverse Jim Crow America by giving them tips on where to stay and “sun down” towns to avoid, an unfortunate necessity at the time. Based on the true story of pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) touring the deep South with his new driver and bodyguard Tony Lip (Mortensen) in tow. Tony is your stereotypical New York Italian from that era, blue collar tough guy, doing odd jobs to stay above water, including some with an ilk of folk that just may be mob related (who am I kidding, they totally are). He and most of his family are casually racist, illustrated when his father in law comes over with a group of friends so his daughter won’t be left alone with two black handymen. Not to be outdone, but to save face in front of the workers, Tony throws away the glasses they drank out of after they leave. This, of course, is nothing compared to what will happen when he hits the road with Don, and it gives him enough background to make for a sweet, but predictable, change of heart for Tony.
Like any good road trip, the best parts of Green Book take place in the car, with Dr. Don and Tony trading quips. Part The Odd Couple, part Driving Miss Daisy (though in reverse), the banter between the two as they get to know each other is great. It is in these moments that the film’s strength biggest shows, its two leads. In typical fashion, they both ending learning something about themselves thanks to the unlikely pairing. The friendship and respect they develop for each other over the course of the film feels natural and rewarding thanks in no small part to the actors stepping in their shoes. Their talent makes some of the more hokey moments more palatable, and elevates this above the hokey garbage it could be in less caring hands.
The same can’t be said for all of the scenes outside of the car, however. There is more than one moment where the racism on display is so overt, so brazenly displayed by a class of people you’d think would be a little more couth about it, I couldn’t believe it. Asshole cops and dumb rednecks I get, but the obvious racist behavior by some of the people that hired Don to play seemed a bit much. Was it really common practice to shamelessly talk down to the black entertainer that you hired? How often did people who should know better say their inside thoughts out loud? Did they feel they needed to set an example for the help even in private? Or am I just giving people too much credit, and this wasn’t that embellished and all these people just didn’t care how it made them look? It’s a shame because there are just enough moments like those where they start to undercut some of the more poignant scenes in the tale.
As the saying goes, the only way we can avoid making the same mistakes is to learn from them. And it’s sad that a story that took place almost sixty years ago is more relevant today than it should be. If bits and pieces are embellished, that doesn’t take away from the core message. This is something that we need to be reminded of and is an ugly part of our past and present, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. While movies like this aren’t anything new, when a great cast shining a light on it, you could do a lot worse.