With his turn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy playing the soldier Aragorn, as well as his roles in the David Cronenberg films A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Viggo Mortensen has come to represent a virile, muscular and violent type of masculinity. In these parts, his body is the center of attention, and seems almost mythical by its ability to endure and cause pain, like an invincible angel of death. Mortensen’s character of Tony Lip Vallelonga in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book — which just won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF — sees the actor come back down to live amongst the mere mortals, with his machismo becoming more pedestrian and realistic as well. His physique in Farrelly’s broad comedy sends a slightly different message: Tony is fat beyond the realms of “dad bod” and seems almost proud of it when he walks with his belly protruding under his white tee. His way of talking is just as unapologetic, especially when he’s addressing his large Italo-American family, be it in English or in their patois Italian, and Mortensen is surprisingly skillful at adopting the accent and funny with this brash attitude, so far from his usual measured, classy performances.
It’s difficult to say whether Farrelly’s portrayal of the Vallelongos, a working-class family living in 1964 New York, is purely caricatural — or rather, whether this caricature is degrading for the characters or a sign of affection and understanding. Despite the emphasis on hand gestures, heavy pasta-eating and greasy hairstyles, there is plenty of space left for other signs of ethnic identity to seep through. The hypervirility of these men is tied to their ethnicity, and complicates the picture: cash-strapped Tony’s participation in a hotdog eating contest to make ends meet is absurd, but speaks to both his origins in a culture that loves food, and to his desire to take on any challenge, however stupid, to prove he is a real man.
Moreover, while Farrelly may revel in the ridiculous nature of these characteristics to make them funny — as in many of the hit movies he directed with his brother Bobby — they are already exaggerations in themselves. Performative masculinity is nothing if not heavy-handed and defensive behavior, an overstatement of your belonging to a certain powerful identity group that would crush you if you didn’t fit in. A relative screams “you’re embarrassing your son!” to Tony in order to push him to eat more hot dogs, harassing him with verbal attacks on his fatherhood and manliness that are amusing but also deeply disturbing. The racism of the Vallelongos — including Tony who frowns on his wife’s interactions with two African-American repairmen early in the film — is, of course, like discrimination always is, as much of an aberration, and the film treats it as such. Farrelly makes evident this fear of the unknown, overblown into hatred, with broad but impactful strokes, because this is how racism functions: it is brutal and incoherent. Green Book has mainstream appeal because of its blunt approach that plays up the idiocy of intolerance.
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When Tony is directed to an apartment above Carnegie Hall to apply for another odd job as a driver, the interview process doesn’t go well, and not because his potential employer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is African-American. Tony is fine with driving Don around and using his skills as a bouncer if need be, but he’s too proud to iron Don’s shirts. Plus, Don doesn’t seem to understand that his plan of touring the racist South giving piano concerts is an invitation to danger: without saying so, Tony makes clear that he’s skeptical of Don’s evident spirituality and tolerance (revealed by his eclectic collection of artifacts from around the world, and his seemingly endless patience with Tony’s antics). Already, the meeting of Don and Tony makes for complex interactions between different systems of power: Don is evidently quite wealthy and Tony would most definitely take the job weren’t it for Don’s race; Tony’s low economic status, meanwhile, is no real problem for Don, except for how it shows in the other man’s inferior diction and vocabulary.
These clashes of identity values, as filmed by Farrelly, are meant to be both insightful and amusing, and they often are — but rarely do they generate more than a knowing chuckle — knowing, because the awfulness of racism is nothing new, and the difficulty to navigate identity politics, while a genuine issue, is here presented in extreme cases that only ask for a basic level of decency to be deciphered. The image of the highly educated Don helping Tony pen romantic letters to his wife, Cyrano-style, only confirms the audience’s preexisting knowledge that of course, African-Americans can be more literate than White Americans. Despite its subject matter, Green Book doesn’t feel particularly progressive because the story it tells, being set in a period of segregation, is mostly made of such stark examples of discrimination that today’s audience can only see as reprehensible. Its grossest moments are when this brutal racial discrimination is suddenly, and to both Don and Tony’s surprise, out of the picture, as when a policeman turns out to be truly helpful and not after a racist arrest. This #notallcops message only serves, again, to make white audiences feel a momentary relief, allowing them to still love the police even as the police remain a truly dangerous force for African Americans in today’s world (to say nothing of the early 60s American South). Paradoxically, Green Book seems to acknowledge, first, that if the most recent political developments in America and even in Europe are anything to go by, a lot of citizens today still need to be taught about respect, but also that a white audience needs a little reassurance regarding its own goodness.
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Green Book becomes more than a comforting story of a friendship that today would actually be perfectly likely when its baseline intersectionality shows its limits. Shirley’s identity is extremely complex, made up of traits that society typically doesn’t allow to come together. He has managed to become a master in a classical mode usually reserved for white people, and yet his manager has advised him to play his own compositions rather than all the (white) greats like Frédéric Chopin or Franz Liszt; he is now wealthy, but maitres d’s still refuse him a seat in their all-white fancy restaurants or a room in their luxury hotels; his sexuality, meanwhile, places him at odds wherever he goes. His very title of Doctor comes from his having doctorates in music, psychology and liturgical arts, but it is hard to imagine him being allowed to build a career on these skills alone. Don’s insistence on not being just a black entertainer for white people explains why he won’t play the jazz music of “his people,” but it also estranges him from his culture and his ancestors in a heartbreaking way. The muddy waters of heritage and self-determination, the different modes of resistance of forcing your way into a space that refuses you (e.g., a concert hall in the South) or, instead, creating your own space (a jazz bar celebrating the music of slaves and freedom fighters) make for a few vividly humane moments where politics are temporarily forgotten and this messy, humane incoherence is embraced. Because everyone comes from somewhere and never quite stays true to what he or she was taught, no one can be perfectly consistent in their ideas and behaviors. The key is to be mindful of the grey areas, which Tony and Don both learn to do by the end of the film. If the plot of Green Book follows a standard arc from difference to mutual understanding (again, in those broad and audience-validating strokes), it is with a few bolder and less easily graspable moments that Farrelly elevates this real story from a funny anecdote to a moving and thought-provoking fable about the difficulties of being a full person in a multi-faceted world.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.