Had 2018’s GREEN BOOK been made in the late 80s or early 90s by Martin Scorsese or Sydney Pollack with Robert De Niro and Denzel Washington in the lead roles, it would have been hailed a seminal classic of that era it would be one of those films that revolved around in conversation when discussing DRIVING MISS DAISY, PHILADELPHIA, or CITY SLICKERS; films that have a dramatic narrative that encompasses topical and social issues, but also have an undercurrent of humor, electrifying chemistry between the leads, and made with a mature and classical aesthetic that does not come across as heavy-handed, agenda driven or overly preachy. Yet, in 2018 the film and its filmmakers find themselves embroiled in controversy as the film leaps to the top of the pack as the awards season intensifies.
The picture is a charming and good-hearted road film between Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, a rough-edged Italian from an inner-city gulch and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Shirley, an over-educated worldly maestro who embark on a musical tour that takes them well below the Mason Dixon Line in 1962. The film has many laugh out loud moments between the micro worldview of Mortensen and the macro view of Ali. GREEN BOOK has an inverted narrative of most current films about racism and sexuality as the primary focus of the plot is the friendship and connection that builds between the two leads, as race and sexuality are dealt with in a reserved and respectful manner.
Mortensen is wonderful as he channels the archetypal blue-collar guy with a high school education at best. He gained weight for the role, chain smokes cigarettes, speaks in double negatives, and folds an entire pizza in half and eats it. Ali is just as good with his stoic and physical presence, giving a calculated reserved performance that is the definition of the economy of movement with his absolute disdain that turns into love for Mortensen.
Based upon a true story of happenstance meeting turned into a lifelong friendship, the film does not aim to cure racism nor does it intend that white people can solve the problem with a snap of their fingers, the film is about personal growth and enlightenment. Had this film been made in the late 60s or 70s by Hal Ashby, Sydney Lumet or Mike Nichols starring James Caan and Sydney Poitier GREEN BOOK would be a film that revolves in the same conversations as NETWORK, THE LANDLORD, or THE GRADUATE.