Movie review: Lead characters in drama comedy Green Book are likeable but lack shades of grey

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.
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.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Drama comedy

GREEN BOOK (PG13)

130 minutes/ Opens on Jan 24/ 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 which 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 setups feel easy and unforced. There is genuine chemistry between the brash Vallelonga and the 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 brother Bobby defined comedy for a generation. Dumb And Dumber (1994) and Me, Myself And 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, Mahershala Ali offers the more moving performance.

His Shirley is an eccentric who might have been not much more than a collection of quirks. 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.

Watch the trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkZxoko_HC0