Director of comedies tackles racism in new film

Green Book (starring Mahershala Ali, far left, and Viggo Mortensen, left) by director Peter Farrelly (above) is a historical drama dealing with issues of race and class.
Green Book (starring Mahershala Ali, left, and Viggo Mortensen, right) by director Peter Farrelly is a historical drama dealing with issues of race and class.PHOTOS: UNIVERSAL PICTURES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Green Book (starring Mahershala Ali, far left, and Viggo Mortensen, left) by director Peter Farrelly (above) is a historical drama dealing with issues of race and class.
Green Book (starring Mahershala Ali, and Viggo Mortensen) by director Peter Farrelly (above) is a historical drama dealing with issues of race and class.PHOTOS: UNIVERSAL PICTURES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • Peter Farrelly helped usher in a new era of raunchy and ridiculous comedies, the kind in which idiots get their tongues stuck on icy poles and nervous teenagers endure painful prom-date catastrophes.

But now, the director and co-writer of Dumb And Dumber (1994) and There's Something About Mary (1998) has turned his attention to a different kind of movie: a historical drama that deals with weighty issues of race and class, stars an Academy Award winner and nominee and is racking up film-festival prizes.

Green Book, out last month in Washington and select cities, stars Mahershala Ali as a concert pianist and Viggo Mortensen as the Bronx bouncer who drives him through the Deep South for a tour in the 1960s.

The movie takes its name from The Negro Motorist Green Book, the popular travel guide that helped African Americans travel during the Jim Crow era.

"It's definitely a departure from what I've done, but it wasn't like I thought at that point in my life, 'You know I should do something different,'" co-writer and director Farrelly said.

It is not uncommon for comedy writers and directors to shift to drama and get critical acclaim, but the trend is especially prevalent recently: Jonah Hill's Mid90s and David Gordon Green's Halloween both came out this autumn.

The movie industry has seen the decline of the kinds of hit summer comedies that used to be so commonplace when Farrelly and his brother Bobby helped reshape the genre. These days, studios are putting out fewer comedies and more superhero and science-fiction films.

Perhaps the sorts of features that characterised Farrelly Brothers comedies would not fly today, in an era of intense scrutiny and rapid social-media controversies.

Would not the use of a fat suit in Shallow Hal (2001) face fierce blowback? What about Warren, the developmentally disabled character in There's Something About Mary? Farrelly wonders.

Critics at the time pilloried them for the Warren character, but Farrelly said they received only positive fan mail about him, including from people who wrote that the movie inspired them to spend more time with relatives who have disabilities.

Any criticism "didn't bother us because we didn't believe it", Farrelly said. "In my heart, I knew it wasn't true, and just from the reaction we got from real people."

With Warren, "were there laughs around him? Sure. But he wasn't the laugh".

Although Green Book is decidedly a drama, there is humour laced throughout.

That was not an element Farrelly set out to incorporate. In fact, he and his co-writers went out of their way not to add gags and instead focused on the odd-couple chemistry.

"There are no jokes in this. Anything that comes out of this is organic, character-driven - it's a thing between these two guys," Farrelly said. "On paper, this wasn't as funny as the movie turned out to be."

The nuanced performances of Mortensen and Ali elevated it, Farrelly said. "They took little smiles and turned them into laughs."

Ali's Don Shirley serves as the straight man to Mortsensen's Tony Lip, getting laughs from a simple eyebrow raise or smirk.

It certainly helped that Lip had naturally funny tendencies, especially in his relationship with food.

Mortsensen eats on screen a lot. He gained 11kg before filming, then another 9kg during the seven-week shoot, a likely outcome after eating 15 hot dogs in a day.

It is a good thing the movie ended up having as many laughs as it did, the film-makers said, because they make the film more accessible.

They give breaks from the heavier scenes that show the dangers of travelling for black people in an era of sundown towns, which banned African Americans after dark.

"We had a diverse crew and a lot of crew members would come forward and they were moved by what was happening or angered in some ways by the scenes," Farrelly said.

He said he "never set out to make a message movie, but while we were making the movie, you start recognising what you're doing here".

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2018, with the headline 'Director of comedies tackles racism in new film'. Print Edition | Subscribe