A well intentioned and certainly entertaining crowd pleaser, Green Book belongs to the same cinematic pedigree as films like Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, and The Blind Side; movies where a white person and a black person will reach a common form of human understanding during times of racial segregation or hardship. Generally speaking, these kinds of films are decidedly problematic in spite of the craft that goes into their construction, often dabbling in stereotypes designed to remind viewers that while segregation was terrible, there were still a handful of kind souls striving for racial equality.
Green Book, a solo outing from director and co-writer Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin), has its fair share of problems, but also might be the least thematically troublesome of the bunch. It has to tread lightly in a bid to cater to what’s probably going to be a predominantly white audience, but through a combination of snappy writing, tight direction, fascinating main characters, and two charismatic stars playing expertly off each other, Green Book will make many viewers forget that its balance of light and dark comes down a bit too easily on the rosy side.
Green Book gets its title from a guidebook circulated in the days of the Jim Crow South that would help people of colour navigate inhospitable, deeply segregated states, and finds its inspiration in a real life friendship. Italian-American bouncer Frank Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), finds himself temporarily out of work and in need of a steady gig to help provide for his wife (Linda Cardellini) and family. Tony is offered a gig driving and guarding Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained black pianist with a doctorate, on an eight week, pre-Christmas tour of the midwest and deep south. Tony agrees to the job with some hesitation (and he’s more than a bit racist himself at the start of the trip), and while Don seemingly abhors everything about his slovenly, tactless, motor-mouthed valet, the lonely and standoffish pianist sees something of great value in his choice of driver. Through their time spent together and numerous scrapes with racist cops, rednecks, and socialites, Don opens up Tony’s narrow viewpoint of the world around them, and the driver shows genuine concern for the health and well being of his heavy drinking employer.
Stitching the road movie playbook to the segregationist period piece guidebook with ease and success, Green Book comes loaded with plenty of soft-pitch thematic material that will be appreciated by many and deemed as being too feeble for others. Honestly, I still don’t entirely know what to make of Green Book’s strangely apolitical look at 1960s racism. Farrelly, who acclimates himself nicely to his most serious material yet, isn’t shying away from issues surrounding race, sexuality, gender, and privilege, but it’s hard not to think that all of these issues have been better glimpsed in other films.
Every time Tony watches in horror as his refined and erudite boss is treated like a low class monster or the filterless tough guy calls someone out on their obvious bigotry, these moments are captured like fence-swinging moments calculated not for overall realism, but for audience goosing catharsis. People will cheer whenever the characters out someone on screen as a bigot because it feels good to do so, but others in the audience will probably (and quite rightfully) wonder where most of these cheering masses are when it comes to standing up against oppression in the world outside the theatre. It’s all very well done and admirably showing curiously little nostalgia for the period outside of the material production design details and old timey dialogue, but there’s something sanitized about Green Book that’s hard to shake. Maybe sanitized is too strong a word. It’s more like someone ran a warm washcloth over everything.
The script, penned by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (the real life son of Frank), both invites and deflects criticisms with grace and ease by placing the story of Green Book into the confines of a neatly constructed character piece. Don and Tony are guarded people with rich inner lives that are rarely even shown to those closest to them. Don keeps his distance through snobbery and an artist’s desire to remain mysterious if they want to be seen as a serious genius, while Tony defuses anything that might touch a nerve with a joke, insult, or slap upside the head. The true appeal of Green Book comes from watching how Don and Tony are able to bring out the best in each other and make a genuine, honest connection.
With lesser characters, sequences where Tony introduces Don to the wonderful taste of fried chicken or the pair hanging out on at a picnic table to write a love letter from the road to Tony’s wife would’ve played like hackwork at best and offensively at worst. That’s why Green Book is constantly layering details about Tony and Don, never resting on the surface level personas of the characters. While the friendship between the two evolves over their time spent together, the script also finds ways to organically insert further defining traits about them that viewers might not be expecting. It’s more interesting to see where the characters go in Green Book than the by-the-numbers racial and road trip elements. Any moment between the two leads bantering is infinitely more rewarding and genuine than watching Don looking on in horror and disgust at fields full of black labourers while the unsubtle musical score swells.
The casting of Mortensen and Ali is ultimately the defining difference between Green Book being a good movie and a mediocre, problematic one. Both of them are relishing the chance to play against type and opposite an equal. Mortensen is no stranger to playing tough guy, enforcer types, but he’s never been asked to play one with this much paunch and goofiness. Tony is a hapless and clueless rube for most of the picture, and not always a loveable one, but Mortensen, leaning heavily into a Bronx accent, always keeps the focus on the character’s overwhelming humanity and his continually growing desire to evolve as a person. On the other hand, Ali strips away any sense of machismo Don might convey and replaces it with obvious defense mechanisms and entitlement. Neither of the characters displays a shred of self-awareness (which, come to think of it, is a hallmark of a Farrelly comedy), but they understand the emotions of others just fine. Together, they make even the preachiest moments of Green Book feel reasoned, making this an easy crowd pleaser to get caught up in on the whole.
The wheels start to come off of Green Book the longer the trip rolls on. It becomes more serious and verges on the hypocritical once the characters start calling each other out on their bullshit, even going so far as to include a “did you know some white people were racially discriminated against” moment that I have an uneasy feeling the “all lives matter” set will seize upon as some sort of woke moment. But even in these moments, Farrelly, Mortensen, and Ali remain resolutely professional, even when it all builds to a climactic sequence straight out of a John Hughes movie (and you can probably guess which one just from this film’s plot description). The more the material gives in to its own back-patting worst impulses, Green Book remains entertaining, charming, and confident.
It’s precisely the kind of film that easily courts Oscar buzz and wins film festival audience awards, like the one it picked up at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier in the fall. Is it good enough to warrant such fervent hype? No, not really, but it’s fine. I doubt I will think much about Green Book in the future, but I can say that I didn’t have a bad or uncomfortable time watching it. I won’t be revisiting or rexamining it in the future because everything about it is so surface level and obvious. Like most Oscar bait released around this time of year, Green Book will have ardent defenders heralding its importance and entertainment value, and a vocal segment of the population who will think it’s simplistic crap. I think it’s almost too mediocre to be called either, but just barely on the positive side of that dubious line. My wife reviews movies by saying she would either watch something again, she liked it, but wouldn’t watch it again, or she didn’t like/hated it. Going by my wife’s scale, I liked Green Book, but I’ll probably never watch it again.
Unlike more problematic films where general audience members are chomping at the bit to tell me how much they love them while in bite my lip and grit my teeth, counting the seconds until I can exit the conversation entirely, I don’t dread the conversations people will undoubtedly want to have with me about Green Book. Instead of gritting my teeth and feeling uncomfortable, I’ll smile and nod, not wanting to deliver a history lesson, note that Mortensen almost singlehandedly rendered the entire work as a moot point in a recent Q&A, or say anything that would spark further and potentially contentious discussions over elements that I don’t think work. If you can’t see why Green Book is so lightweight in today’s social climate, you probably never will, but good on you for at least knowing that racism is awful. There are worse injustices in the world today than the innocuous nature of Green Book, which makes it both a calming, but thoughtful balm in troubled times and a well meaning work that doesn’t do much at all other than entertain. It’s the kind of film that the Academy’s “most popular film” seems designed to win.
Green Book opens exclusively in Toronto at Cineplex Varsity on Friday, November 16, 2018. It expands to theatres everywhere on Wednesday, November 21.
Check out the trailer for Green Book:
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