‘Green Book’: A classic road movie, but for adults

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in a scene from “Green Book.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures via AP

CAIRO: Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” is based on a true story, which in this case shouldn’t be read as a warning not to go. It recounts a story from the life of Jamaican jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley and his 1962 concert tour through the then unabashedly racist deep south, accompanied by Italian-American driver Frank Vallelonga, who was charged with keeping the artist safe from Americans.

The film opens with a vignette from the life of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a working-class bouncer at New York’s Copacabana nightclub. When some neighborhood kingpin comes into the Copa and loudly wards the coat check girl to guard his hat with her life, Lip slides a few dollars to the young woman and removes the hat. He then returns the hat personally, to ingratiate himself with the hood.

He needs the help because the Copa’s about to shot for renovations and Lip, a family man with a couple of young boys, is penniless.

It’s about then that he receives a call about a Doctor Shirley who’s in need of a driver.

Lip’s given an address and told to come for a job interview.

The address leads him to Carnegie Hall and he’s informed the doctor lives in the flat upstairs. Shirley isn’t a medical doctor but a pianist and composer but “doctor” isn’t simply a stage name, as it turns out he’s accumulated more than one PhD.

Shirley (Mahershala Ali) lives in princely style in his Carnegie Hall place, attended by a South Asian footman named Amin and himself fond of wearing African traditional dress around the house.

Shirley tells Lip that though he will be driving during this monthslong tour, he’ll also be expected to protect him and, effectively, be the musician’s servant. At first Lip refuses the job, but his needs and Shirley’s ultimately seal the deal.

The plot benefits a great deal from the incongruities of Lip and Shirley’s story, co-written by Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga (Lip’s son) the two players of Shirley’s trio, for instance, Russian cellist and contrabass players who drive in another car but enter the story at performance venues.

Otherwise the story remains utterly true to road movie conventions.

The two protagonists begin the film alienated from one another by their differences. A Russian-trained classical musician who’d never listened to the music of pop stars like Little Richard and Aretha Franklin before meeting Lip, the patrician Shirley finds the culture of poor African-Americans far more alien than the working class Italian-American does. At the end of the day, though, Lip is white, and in America, that’s what matters.

Farrelly is recognized in commercial film circles for a string of mildly off-color comedies that he and his brother Bobby have written, directed and produced with an assortment of Hollywood talent.

Remember the first (and last) “Dumb and Dumber” movie, “There’s Something About Mary” or “Shallow Hal?” That’s them.

With the premiered “Green Book” at TIFF earlier this year, Peter Farrelly veered toward adult cinema.

A road movie premised on role-reversal that oscillates between comedy and sentimentality, “Green Book” isn’t exactly alien to Farrelly’s previous work. Aside from its serious plot points, it’s made to look more serious by the casting.

For the chameleon-like multilingual Danish-American Mortensen, the film marks a comedy debut, while Ali who broke out a couple of years back with his brief but memorable turn in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” also demonstrates his comic abilities.

This being a road movie, the differences dividing the two characters invariably dissolve beneath the compelling warmth of the two characters, whose exchanges frequently take a comic turn.

You may know how the film will end in the first half-hour but, as with all road movies, the end of the journey is less important than all the stuff that happens along the way.

Projected at the Cairo Opera House Tuesday evening, Farrelly’s crowd-pleaser opened this year’s Cairo International Film Festival.

This venerable cinema event is the oldest in the MENA region.

In the 2000s it was superseded by blue-chip film festivals in the UAE and Qatar, whose lucrative prize monies ensured that Arab filmmakers would premiere their work in Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi.

The Gulf film scene has since reconfigured drastically. At present the Doha Film Institute’s Ajyal Film Festival, with its focus on young filmmakers and youth-oriented cinema, is the only international film festival in that region, though an announcement is expected soon about a new film platform from the Sharjah Art Foundation.

This year marks CIFF’s 40th edition and it does so with a new director, Egyptian screenwriter and producer Mohamed Hefzy who’s Film Clinic production house has made a name for itself cultivating young and up-and-coming talents in the Egyptian industry.

Between now and Nov. 29, CIFF will project films in several different sections. The international competition and official out-of-competitive selections are accompanied by Horizons, an Arabic film competition, an International Critics Week competition, a contest for short films, a program devoted to recent Egyptian films, a tribute to Arab women filmmakers, a focus on Russian cinema and a first Midnight Screenings. Watch this space.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 22, 2018, on page 12.




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