24 Lies a Second: Driving Doc Shirley

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Driving Doc Shirley

I expect I have spoken in the past of the way in which film trailers tend to get shown before movies with which they have a certain something in common, mainly because this is where they are most likely to find a receptive audience and actually do their job of making people go to see the film they're advertising. So in a weird way I can sometimes get a sense of how much I'm going to enjoy a film from the trailers that run before it – if they all look pretty appetising, I can be more sure I've made a good choice. Ones that provoke a mutter of 'Not even if you paid me...' set alarm bells ringing. So, when I was treated in one session to the promotional material for Instant Family, Fisherman's Friends, On the Basis of Sex and If Beale Street Could Talk, all of which look likely to be either glutinously sentimental or tediously earnest, my wariness about Peter Farrelly's Green Book was only increased. (We also got the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel, but that didn't count as the Alita trailer was being shown before literally everything possible – I suspect panic was setting in and the studio suspected they had a bomb on their hands, but I guess that's what happens when you base a $200 million-plus movie on an relatively obscure manga and then release it in February – quick review below, by the way.)

Green Book is supposedly one of those marginally-true stories, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The film is set in the early 1960s and Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a slightly shady New York wise guy who – as the film opens – is working as a brutally efficient nightclub bouncer. (You have to hand it to Viggo when it comes to landing roles he doesn't initially sound quite right for. The man is Danish, after all, and would not be, you'd think, anyone's first choice to play Italian-American. But we should bear in mind Mortensen's track record in performing roles of wildly varied ethnic backgrounds with great aplomb: Spanish, native American, Amish, Dunedain – this man can do them all.)

Anyway, when the club briefly closes, Tony is obliged to find a new source of income, and after a short stint participating in eating contests for money, he lands a job as driver, fixer, and general factotum for the concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Obviously there is the potential for a personality clash here – Tony is a streetwise, amoral, crude, profane, somewhat racist family man, while Don is cultured, restrained, fastidious, African-American and a confirmed bachelor. However, tensions between the two are secondary to those they may encounter on the road – for Tony is to accompany Dr Shirley on a tour of the deep south of the United States, where segregation is still a fact of everyday life and bigotry is openly on display. Before departing, Tony is handed a copy of the 'Green Book' – a list of the hotels and restaurants which African-Americans are allowed to use...

I should say that Green Book went on my list of films to look out for the first time I saw the trailer last year, but as the release got closer I must confess I grew increasingly cynical about it and moderated my expectations quite significantly. I realised that I already had a pretty good idea of the way this one was going to play out, down to some of the specific beats of the story: the two men would initially fail to connect with each other, but slowly, over the course of the film, a bond would develop in the face of the racism they encountered every day. Tony would become a better, more open-minded and tolerant man as a result of Don's influence; Don, meanwhile, would be revealed to have some personal issues of his own, which Tony would help him begin to deal with. In the end there would be an uplifting message of friendship and acceptance of difference.

And, do you know what? I was entirely correct in this. (I shouldn't take too much credit for this predictive feat, as most of it is implicit in the trailer.) I feel I should also point at that the quote, prominently featured in the publicity, 'Like no other movie', presumably came from someone wholly unfamiliar with any of the numerous odd-couple buddy road movies of years gone by. But, and this is more important, the thing is that this actually really doesn't matter at all.

Before going any further, it's probably worth mentioning that many commentators have criticised Green Book on the same kind of grounds that I was thinking of: it is really just sanitised comfort-food for liberals and progressives, it skates over just how ugly and oppressive life under the Jim Crow laws was, it is even another example of the White Saviour narrative trope (according to some people, anyway). I am not in a position to say that any of this is definitely untrue. But what does seem to me to be the case is that this is a charming, solidly-made film that never overtly seems to be preaching to the audience, never feels like it's shying away from uncomfortable historical truths, and – most importantly – is driven along by two genuinely terrific performances from charismatic actors.

Viggo Mortensen holds the unique distinction of being the only actor that I know of to get his picture put up on my mother's bedroom wall. This happened rather late in life for both of them, around the time that Mortensen enjoyed his highest profile due to his role in The Lord of the Rings (a film for which he was a piece of last-minute replacement casting). His rather chequered career before visiting Middle-Earth, and the fact he hasn't been that prominent in big movies since then, might lead you to assume that this was a fluke, but even a brief look at the man makes it clear that simply being a Hollywood movie star is not something that really interests him very much – he is also a poet, musician, photographer, artist and author (in addition to speaking about seven languages, not counting Sindarin). It looks like he only makes the movies that really interest him.

This is great for Mortensen, I expect, but a bit of a shame for the rest of us, because what Green Book really underlines is that he is a genuinely great and compelling actor, entirely capable of carrying a substantial mainstream movie (I suppose his multiple Oscar, Bafta and SAG nominations might also tip one off to this). There is, as I say, the fact that Mortensen doesn't really look especially Italian-American, but apart from this he is effortlessly convincing, and not afraid to be unsympathetic at the start of the film. One can only hope that we see more of him in future (it would make my mum happy too), but I suppose that depends on people sending him decent scripts. Fingers crossed.

Mahershala Ali is one of those actors who seems to have popped up almost from nowhere in recent years, having built a career on a series of smartly-chosen, well-executed performances. His place in history was secured when he became the first Muslim American actor to win an Oscar (for his early-exit role in Moonlight), and he now shows every sign of becoming the go-to guy for dignity, poise, and self-respect (he's also in Alita, but a guy's got to eat). The joy of this film is the chemistry between Tony and Don, and it really does feel like the focus is firmly on the two of them as individuals, although inevitably issues of race and culture do get raised as the story progresses.

So, in the end, yes, Green Book is a very predictable movie – but the story was such an engaging and well-crafted one that I really didn't care, I was having such a good time with these two characters on their journey. This isn't a particularly radical film, or an obviously angry one, but it's a hopeful one with a positive message. It may well just be comfort food for white liberals, but it's comfort food for white liberals that has come from a very classy kitchen.

Also This Week...

...Can You Ever Forgive Me?, another true-life odd-couple story with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant as literary forgers in New York. A curious tale, well told, with strong award-nominated performances from the leads – although given that both of them are basically delivering a variation on their standard screen personae, it's hard to shake the impression that McCarthy has been Oscar-nominated for putting on a wig.

...Alita: Battle Angel, in which Rosa Salazar plays a cyborg warrior-girl in a dystopian future. The 24LAS predict-o-tron suggests that possible studio fears of this film losing them a packet may turn out to be justified – this is one of those visually-lavish, terribly derivative blockbusters that will be forgotten in a year's time, with a bloated budget, a lack of big-name stars and a flabby, unstructured screenplay all likely to keep it from being a commercial success. Some good action sequences, though.

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