Peter Farrelly’s Green Book establishes its characters in exceptionally concise fashion, beginning with Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a proudly self-described “bullshit artist” working among gangsters in 1960s New York. He makes an immediate impression as a man fueled by hustle: Tony will steal a mobster’s hat just so he can be the one who later “finds” it and collects a favor for its return, and his almost instinctual pursuit of money—to both support his family and keep his belly full—leads him to absurd stunts like starting an impromptu hot-dog-eating contest. Mortensen quickly stresses Tony’s gregarious, loud persona, which is just plucky enough to be endearing, only to then disrupt that image with ugly displays of the man’s racism, as when Tony is so disgusted by the black repairmen who come into his home that he throws away the glasses they drink out of the second they leave.
Tony, in the midst of his incessant job hunting, must ultimately grapple with his prejudice after receiving an offer to work as a driver for Dr. Don Shipley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned classical pianist preparing for a tour of the Deep South. Don discusses the various tasks of organization and service that Tony would have to provide, but it’s obvious from the moment that he details the tour’s itinerary that he’s sought out Tony for reasons other than his driving skills. Never outright saying it, Don still makes it clear that he needs muscle on this trip. Told that several people recommended him, and unable to pass up the lucrative pay, Tony accepts the gig. Soon, the pair hits the road, with Don sitting erect, dignified, and, above all, comfortable in the backseat.
The obvious point of reference for a racially motivated film about a chauffeur is, of course, Driving Miss Daisy, but Farrelly’s quirky juxtaposition of an uptight cosmopolitan and vulgar, garrulous raconteur pushes Green Book far closer into the terrain of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Tony is almost all hustle, but Mortensen fills the character with a certain guileless awe at the simple pleasures presented to him across America, as when Tony notices a Kentucky Fried Chicken within the state of Kentucky and his disbelieving glee suggests that of a kid surprised to discover he’s been brought to Disneyland. The actor also ratchets up Tony’s fast-talking palavering when driving Don around, subtly casting the man’s endless chatter as a fumbling but sincere attempt at connecting with his new boss. Tony regularly references racial stereotypes and black pop culture, as that’s all that he knows about black people, and he can’t understand why Don bristles at such mentions.
For his part, Ali brings such a demanding fussiness to Don that much of Green Book‘s humor derives from the character’s total disbelief that a person as unrefined as Tony could still exist in the civilized world. The musician watches with a pained expression as Tony wolfs down food, and he tends to respond to his driver’s provincialism with the sort of sarcasm that would wither Tony if he were sharp enough to understand he was being mocked in the first place.
Yet Ali also vividly highlights the way that Don’s careful attention to appearances reflects the added pressure he feels as a black man to be exceptional—and, in doing so, to leave no room to be reduced to the racist caricature that people will view him as regardless of his behavior. His steeliness is an extension of the loneliness he clearly feels as a result of contending with so many literal and figurative barriers. Even Don’s most amusing interactions with Tony, as in his Cyrano-esque assistance in writing Tony’s love letters to his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), mask an attempt to bare repressed emotions that he fears to share with his own love interests.
In 1996, Farrelly made a great odd-couple road flick, Kingpin, and the lack here of the gross-out humor that’s defined that and his other films with his brother, Bobby Farrelly, reveals the character-driven comedy that’s been the core of his work all along. Green Book‘s understanding of racism is all over Tony and Don’s faces. It’s in Don smiling his way through Tony’s insults, and it’s in Tony’s tendency to be defensive out of a combination of anxiety over being associated with a black man and the liberty he has as a white man to simply retaliate. And it’s their attempts to cope with the discrimination that defines their relationship that drives the film’s drama and, often, its comedy. Farrelly manages to respect the severity of the characters’ social context while ensuring that Green Book never steps outside its protagonists’ relationship, a delicate balancing act that credibly makes a feel-good, effervescent comedy out of its thorny subject matter without ever sanitizing it.