Green Book is no ordinary road trip movie. Indeed it has a scenario that we have seen replayed dozens of times. It is in the end a movie about two people who can neither be more different nor care for one another, start a journey through an unexpected circumstance of life and arrive at their destinations changed individuals. It is the ultimate ballad for one of the innate human conditions, empathy.

There is an arc for both protagonists, which audiences can see coming a mile away as it closes toward each other by the end of the movie. But Green Book does a surpassingly good job of making that journey entertaining, touching and interesting while subscribing to the road trip formula. It fuses humour, race relations, psychological complexities and jazz together to do this.

The film stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen as real-life heroes, Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, respectively. Vallelonga would go on to become an author and play or make appearances in movies such as Goodfellas, The Godfather, Donnie Brasco and The Sopranos. But before that he worked at a nightclub and for a short time chauffeured Shirley through one of his most tasking moments in life.

The two are acquainted after Vallelonga is recommended to Shirley as a driver with street smarts and physical competence to get him through the United States’ deep South in the 1960s. A time and place where segregation was not unconstitutional may not be a good place to be caught for an African-American but there is a round of performances that he needs to get to, a job that requires a reliable bodyguard.

What makes the movie great is its ability to paint a stark picture of both the characters. Vallelonga is a racist in the beginning, simply because he grew up in a segregated environment where he did not become acquainted with African-Americans, much less learn to understand or respect them.

The humanity in him does not seem to have been likely to be sparked by just any black person though. This is not to say that Shirley had some special charisma or was a good orator enough to get a man that has been prejudiced all his life to empathise.

What made Shirley different was that he was a man without a “people,” or a community to belong to. It is a movie that shows the acting range and depth of Ali in playing a true life character more complex than most that have been depicted on the screen this year.

Shirley is cultured, educated and well-off, with a sexual orientation that many religious people will not find endearing. These qualities serve to ostracise him from the African-American community. Unfortunately, he is unable to become a member of the social group that loves his music, admires his talent and pays good money to hear him play, simply because he is black.

It is this person that Vallelonga, a family man who belongs to another group as an Italian-American, meets and begins to sympathise with. This is not so much a movie about the history of race relations in the United States but a complicated and emotional friendship between two unlikely men.

It is all the more fascinating that Green Book comes from director Peter Farrelly, whose interest has always been pure, mostly farcical, comedy. His career, after hitting highs with one of the funniest comedies ever made, There’s Something About Mary, and Dumb and Dumber, had devolved to Movie 43.

This is a surprising as well as dramatic turnaround for a person I doubt would follow up on this movie. But like There’s Something About Mary, it is sure to hold up until Farrelly manages another good movie.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 09,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 980]

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