I know this may sound absurd, but I always knew that the Farrelly Brothers would someday make a movie good enough that they’d have to be taken seriously. Even though their best work is rooted in the silliest and most insane forms of comedy, the pair always displayed a unique voice and aesthetic as filmmakers, as well as healthy heapings of heart. Granted, Peter Farrelly had to split from his brother Bobby for the accolades to finally happen, but with Green Book winning the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the Farrellys might finally get some respect.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we’ll suddenly see academic think-pieces reclaiming Me, Myself & Irene as an intellectual classic. But maybe, just maybe, this film’s success might suddenly make people realize that Peter Farrelly has been a genuinely gifted filmmaker all along, even if the previous uses of his talent involved semen hair gel, frozen boogers, and forced diarrhea.
Don’t worry, there’s none of that filthy stuff to be found in Green Book. However, the movie does highlight the underlying sweetness that made those gags palatable in Farrelly’s previous work. Green Book is based on an inspiring true story about racial harmony between two unlikely companions. Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony Lip, a longtime employee of the Copacabana who lost his job and is in search of work that doesn’t involve having to join the Mob. After making some fast cash in a hot dog eating competition, Tony decides to try something a little more respectable. He ends up accepting a gig to be a driver for popular pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) during a tour of the southern United States. The stubborn, proud Shirley wants to tour areas of the country where he’s not necessarily welcome to prove a point, but also figures that he could use a driver with the ability to get him out of the tough situations that will inevitably occur. Fortunately, Tony is a master of the art of bullshitting (his words, not mine), so he’s perfect for the job.
It goes without saying that these two strong personalities enter the car as opposites who don’t understand or respect each other. It’s also pretty damn obvious that’s going to change by the end of the movie in a manner that’s heart-warming and lesson-imparting. Green Book is unapologetically one of those mid-budget, awards-courting movies that tend to come around every fall. Thankfully, this one was also directed by one half of the duo who brought you Kingpin (easily one of the great road comedies and certainly the finest bowling movie ever made). Peter Farrelly knows how to hit his audience right in the feels as both a co-writer and director, but he’s also a playful enough filmmaker to prevent Green Room from becoming a dreary and sentimental slog. The film is funny, very funny. It’s also very moving. That’s a crowd-pleasing combo and the movie is guaranteed to please plenty of crowds this awards season.
Farrelly has also always been excellent at casting and knows how to give actors the freedom they need. In Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Farrelly found a perfect pair to ground and lead his latest feature. Mortensen dons a cartoonishly amusing accent (one that’ll sound a little familiar to fans of Carlito’s Way) and leans into the comedic exaggeration of his character. However, he finds dignity and heart at the core and transitions from silly punchline to warm family man and threatening presence with such ease that it’s stunning. Mahershala Ali disappears into his proud and confused genius justifiably furious about the hypocrisy inherent in how the world treats him. He might not have the flashier role, but he does get the most complex emotional journey and delivers such beautiful tragedy, romanticism, and deadpan comedy that it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Green Book has some problems. The story is incredibly predictable and most viewers will anticipate scenes long before they arrive. Likewise, while the film’s message is firmly against bigotry, the script relies on enough stereotypes and stock salvation devices to draw fury and ire from critics inclined to look for such things. The movie ain’t perfect and often feels old-fashioned in a bad way, but Farrelly lands enough big laughs and tear jerks that most people won’t notice. The movie is mostly a joy to watch, up to and including its perfect punchline.