Green Book is the sort of movie you’ve seen before, and if you have discerning taste, you’ll probably resist it. Much like Driving Miss Daisy or The Blind Side, it’s a blandly inspirational tale about how, if we just try hard enough, we can cure racism by meeting someone who’s different than us and learning, hey, deep down we’re not so different after all. That’s a lovely idea but also a willfully naïve one.
And yet… Green Book is also a reminder that, discerning taste aside, all of us can be suckers for something so relentlessly kind and sweet. Basically, Green Book isn’t a good movie, but it’s not exactly a bad movie, either. It’s like a puppy dog, jumping into our laps happy to give us unconditional love. What kind of jerk hates a puppy? That’s the effect of watching Green Book — it’s kinda dumb, but then you almost feel guilty for not embracing it.
As you probably know, Green Book is based on a true story — or, as the savvy tagline tells it, “a true friendship.” It takes place in the 1960s and stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer in New York who’s hired by Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a virtuoso pianist who needs him to be his driver and security detail as he tours the South. (You may have heard that, in the past, white Southerners had some issues with black individuals. Not anymore though, thank goodness.) Tony is hesitant — he’s not, like, racist racist, but he’s uncomfortable around blacks — but the money’s good, so he agrees.
Even if you don’t know the real story, you can guess what happens. Yes, there is, in fact, some initial tension between them. And you’re correct that they will encounter some racist white folks in their travels. And, sure enough, Tony and Don will become friends as they start to get to know each other better.
Green Book couldn’t be more predictable, which will probably go a long way with its intended audience. We all want to believe that social cancers like racism can be cured, and a movie such as Green Book plays out in a way that affirms that belief. (The movie’s very nice and accommodating in this regard.) And so, if you have even an ounce of cynicism in you, it’s awfully easy to hate something so sweet and simple as Green Book. C’mon! Life isn’t like this movie at all! Hell, these characters’ actual circumstance wasn’t much like this movie!
But although I panned the movie when I saw it back at the Toronto Film Festival — and still feel like it’s pretty shoddily made — I confess that I can’t bring myself to loathe it. Maybe if it wins Best Picture, I’ll change my mind, but for now, I’ll simply say that Green Book preyed on my tendency to be a fundamentally optimistic person. I guess, deep down, I do believe that if we all got to know each other, the world would be a better place. That naivety is what a movie like Green Book counts on.
Plus, the film’s two leads are so damn likable together. Mortensen overdoes Tony’s fuggedaboutit demeanor, but the juxtaposition of his lovable-slob character and Ali’s dignified pianist has been a go-to comedic pairing since the days of Felix and Oscar. Just like rom-coms work because we like to think that true love is a real thing, Tony and Don’s friendship is reassuring. The two actors have such a fun time together on screen that we can’t help but be carried away by their characters’ mutual respect and newfound understanding. If they can make it work, heck, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.
This humanistic quality has long been at the center of director Peter Farrelly’s work. Yeah, that Peter Farrelly — the one who, with his brother Bobby, has made broad comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Those films are mostly known for their gross-out gags and juvenile mentality, but they were rarely mean-spirited. Their heroes may be goofballs, weirdoes, nerds, losers and screw-ups, but they always meant well — their inherent decency made you care about them. Peter Farrelly shot Green Book on his own, but that sunny disposition toward humanity has carried over, and it imbues the whole film with idealism.
That’s the trick with a movie like this: On some level, Green Book knows it’s nonsense. Sure, maybe the filmmakers fudged the facts so it could be a more clear-cut uplifting story, but why are you being so mean by pointing that out? Wouldn’t the world be better if it was more like Green Book? Why do you hate that puppy so much?
Here’s the thing about adorable puppies and films such as Green Book: They have their place. I have intelligent, sophisticated, cultured friends who lose their minds over cute animal videos — who am I to mock a few fleeting moments of pleasure? That doesn’t mean I’m saying you should see Green Book — again, it’s not a good movie — but I understand why, if you do, that you might love it. Some movies challenge our way of seeing the world. Some movies question our assumptions and push us out of our comfort zone. And some are just there for you to snuggle with.
Here are three other takeaways from Green Book…
#1. Who was Don Shirley?
Green Book will probably bring more awareness to the career of Don Shirley, who died in 2013 at the age of 86. His obituary in The New York Times mentions that his death wasn’t widely reported at the time — an indication, perhaps, that he wasn’t considered a major jazz artist. That assumption is backed up by looking at his Spotify page, which (as I’m writing this) has less than 3,400 monthly listeners. Many of his most popular tracks on the service are renditions of well-known songs like “Stand by Me,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Drown in My Own Tears.”
Since jazz isn’t my forte, I’ll defer to others on Shirley’s legacy. The racism he endured we know about because of Green Book (although, according to his family, the film actually gets a ton wrong about his life), but his Times obit fills out more of his backstory: “First as part of a duo with a bassist and later as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio, featuring a bassist and a cellist — an unusual instrumentation suggesting the sonorities of an organ — he produced music that synthesized popular and classical sounds. He often melded American and European traditions by embedding a well-known melody within a traditional classical structure. … He was drawn to indigenous American forms, by which he meant the blues, the work song, the Negro spiritual and the show tune, and his compositions referred to those forms. He was not inclined to improvise and disliked being referred to as a jazz musician.”
To my untrained ears, though, Shirley’s music falls very much under the rubric of jazz. His “Stand by Me” is elegant and light, while “Georgia on My Mind” becomes more mournful and lonely in his version.
The closest Shirley got to a hit on the Billboard charts was in 1961: “Water Boy” peaked at No. 40 in October of that year, and it typifies the kind of genre melding that he preferred. “Water Boy” starts off with an upright bass and then segues into cello — it almost sounds classical — before focusing on Shirley’s breezy piano, which then guides the song into more accessible and lighthearted terrain. It’s really quite lovely.
That Times obit ends with a quote from Shirley, and Ali seems to embody its essence in his refined, slightly haughty portrayal. “I am not an entertainer,” Shirley once said. “But I’m running the risk of being considered an entertainer by going into a nightclub because that’s what they have in there. I don’t want anybody to know me well enough to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby.’ The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”
#2. Yeah, Tony Lip used to act.
When I saw Green Book at its premiere in Toronto, I joked to friends that Mortensen’s cartoonish character seemed like an extra in Goodfellas. Once I went home and looked it up, though, I realized I was more right than I knew: Tony Lip actually was in Goodfellas. He played Frankie the Wop. If you don’t remember Frankie, Ray Liotta’s character introduces us to him, among other mobsters, early on in the film:
That wasn’t the first time Tony had been in a movie, though: His IMDb page lists appearances in, among others, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and Raging Bull. But his most prominent acting role was in The Sopranos, where he played the powerful crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi who feuds with Tony Soprano.
He parlayed his Sopranos stardom into a cookbook, called Shut Up and Eat!, where he would hang out with fellow Italian-American actors, such as Chazz Palminteri and James Gandolfini, to swap stories and family recipes. By the way, Lip was born Frank Anthony Vallelonga, but he got the name Tony Lip because, as he once said, “I could outtalk anybody. I would talk people into doing stuff they didn’t want to do, and I could talk [me and my brother] out of any mess we got ourselves into.”
Lip died in 2013 — about three months before Shirley passed — at the age of 82. I’m trying to imagine Mortensen as Carmine Lupertazzi now.
#3. So, what’s the Farrelly brothers’ best film?
From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Peter and Bobby Farrelly enjoyed a streak of smash comedies. In recent years, their commercial hot streak has significantly faded — although I still have affection for their 2012 remake of The Three Stooges — and most people would argue that Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary are their best films. I would not. Instead, I want to show some love to the movie they made between those two. Damn it, why has the world forgotten about Kingpin?
This 1996 comedy spoofed the underdog sports drama by telling the story of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a washed-up, drunken former bowler who befriends Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid), an Amish simpleton who happens to be a bowling prodigy. They team up and go on a road trip, where they’ll compete in a high-stakes tournament against Big Ern McCracken (Bill Murray), a hotshot on the lanes with the world’s most glorious comb-over. (Also, Big Ern and Roy have a contentious past, which is revealed in Kingpin’s terrific opening flashback and explains why Roy has a prosthetic hand.)
Dumb and Dumber and Mary are more iconic, but there’s something brilliantly stupid about Kingpin, which has great fun tweaking its trashy, dim-bulb characters. But, as usual, this Farrelly brothers film has plenty of gooey sweetness as well. Ishmael helps Roy become a good person, and Vanessa Angel is very endearing as Roy’s love interest. But Kingpin might contain Murray’s most unheralded great performance. It seems like the comic legend was allowed to basically ad lib all his dialogue, which gives Murray permission to turn McCracken into an incredible asshole.
Like all of Peter and Bobby’s films, Kingpin is wildly erratic and indefensibly immature. It’s also really, really funny. I’ve finally got enough money that I can buy my way out of anything!