Movie review: Green Book lacks shades of grey

Green Book stars Mahershala Ali (left) as a gifted but aloof jazz pianist and Viggo Mortensen as his driver.
Green Book stars Mahershala Ali (left) as a gifted but aloof jazz pianist and Viggo Mortensen as his driver.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali share chemistry in the drama comedy dealing with racial oppression

REVIEW / DRAMA COMEDY

GREEN BOOK (PG13)

130 minutes/ Now showing/3 stars

The story: Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is an out-of-work nightclub bouncer trying to provide for his family in New York City in the 1960s. He gets a tip - a musician wants to hire a driver. He meets the gifted but aloof jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is looking for someone to drive him through a concert tour of the racially segregated South. Based on a true story.


This movie is very much part of the awards-season tradition of films that deal with the American legacy of racial oppression, but contain a white protagonist.

That white person is an audience surrogate whose eyes are opened to how awful things really are for African Americans, but sometimes is also there to deliver a walloping, verbal or otherwise, to the bad guys.

Green Book includes the dual white-person roles: Mortensen's Vallelonga is the innocent becoming aware of evil and also the one who stands up to it.

He begins as a casual racist, the way most working-class urban whites would be in the 1960s, but is shaken when he meets the vicious, bone-deep racism of the South.

The odd-couple comic set-ups feel easy and unforced and there is genuine chemistry between the brash Vallelonga and stuffy Shirley.

The film this week garnered five Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actor (Mortensen), Supporting Actor (Ali), Original Screenplay and Film Editing.

Director Peter Farrelly's work with his brother Bobby defined comedy for a generation. Dumb And Dumber (1994) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000), among other works, normalised the idea that sweet, life-affirming films can feature defecation jokes.

However, the film is held back, as so many films about oppression are, by a reluctance to create shades of grey in the main characters, as if any hint of unlikeability about them would render them worthless.

Mortensen's New York Italian-American accent needs some work, but Farrelly shapes a mood of prickly conviviality between the two characters that is light and precise.

Of the two, Ali offers the more moving performance.

Shirley is an eccentric who might not have been much more than a collection of quirks. But Ali breathes life into the portrayal, making him a man who is immediately recognisable as the artist who revels in being labelled a genius, but for whom the title has become a cage from which he cannot escape.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2019, with the headline 'Green Book lacks shades of grey'. Print Edition | Subscribe