Green Book is a generic film. I don’t mean that as the slur that many people will interpret it as. I mean that Peter Farrelly’s “inspired by a true story” dramedy adheres to the rules of genre filmmaking as closely as possible. It uses every cliché known to man in the road trip comedy, the racial drama, the overcoming adversity story, and the biopic. And yes, while the devotion to these story beats grows tiresome within the first twenty minutes, let alone the full 135-minute runtime, and the simplicity of its views on fairly complex issues ends up muddying the waters and rubbing people the wrong way, at the end of the day, it is an uplifting story about friendship, focused on two terrific actors (ok, one terrific actor and one who is making some major choices), and it will leave audiences declaring, “That movie was fine. I liked that movie enough.”
In 1962, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) found himself in need of cash after being laid off from his job as a bouncer at the Copa. Desperate for cash, he took a job working for the enigmatic performer Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American pianist about to embark on a concert tour through the Deep South. Needing both a chauffeur and a bodyguard, Shirley turns to Tony, who reluctantly takes the gig despite his general disliking of the black community. And so begins a journey that would change both men’s lives, as Tony managed to see the black experience in the South first hand and stop the road he was headed down and Shirley managed to finally make a friend in his lonely, isolated life.
Much of the backlash against the film is, I believe, centered around the terribly crafted narrative the filmmakers have adopted. They have framed the film as a battle for Tony’s soul, that his friendship with Shirley would change his old racist heart. It’s a narrative that has been played out and, as many rightly cautious African-American critics have accused it of, is steeped in the dangerous narrative of the Magical Negro (a mysterious, smart, quirky black man comes along to advise and change the white hero, like Bagger Vance or several Sidney Poitier roles). While these concerns are understandable, I do believe that Green Book smartly avoids these clichés. While Tony is prejudiced at the start of the film, Farrelly and the writers smartly avoid making him as far gone as, say, Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones or Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards. He is what I call “family racist,” the way your father or cousin may say something mildly repellent while still claiming to abhor the KKK. When he undergoes the journey, it has less to do with Don teaching him that “maybe black folks aren’t so bad” as much as he sees with his own eyes just what an African-American person has to go through. Much has been made by the claim that empathy will be the driving force in defeating the ills of the world: that if the centrists just step out of their comfort zones and speak/befriend an African-American, a Latinx, someone of Jewish heritage, and so on, then we can defeat racism and those that feed on it. That is precisely the arc that Tony goes on. He begins to understand the black experience as more than just a story on the news, but a living, breathing experience. He hears the comments and sees the harassment, he sees the condition of the colored motels, and he witnesses the way the police treat Don, and because he is still a human being with empathy, he manages to discover the level of disgust he had ignored for far too long. And what’s more, the film utilizes the other key talking point in the racial debate: the “first they came for them” argument. As Tony travels through the South, and owners and managers come up to him to bad mouth Don and the African-American community, they oftentimes don’t hide their contempt for Tony’s Italian heritage. They treat him as “one of the good ones,” and often treat him as an equal only as far as his skin is white, but it is clear that if they could successfully contain/eradicate the African-American community, the Italians would be the next to go. By putting Tony in a position where he is down at the bottom of the hierarchy, like Don, it forces him to confront the situation in a way he otherwise wouldn’t have – and thus making his learning experience more visceral for the audience. It’s much more akin to Selma’s explanation (although not the film, which is a far, far superior study of race and race relations during the sixties), which explains that the need for change isn’t just by talking or getting attacked at rallies – it’s getting the “otherwise-fine” white people to truly understand the racism inherent in the system. Tony isn’t some racist magically transformed by a two-dimensional figure – the burgeoning friendship allows him to see the horrors of racism ignored by the news and his own day-to-day activities.
Meanwhile, Don Shirley is no Uncle Remus. Unlike, say, In the Heat of the Night, his journey doesn’t involve a single moment of learning “maybe white folks aren’t so bad.” His issues are more systemic. While the narrative on the Oscar campaign trail has painted it as “Tony teaches Don to be black” (a shockingly abhorrent narrative), or “Don can’t relate to black folks because he’s too white,” the film takes a more nuanced angle: Don’s inability to relate to communities stem from different types of prejudice. He doesn’t fit in with the Caucasian community for whom he plays because of the color of his skin; meanwhile, he doesn’t fit in with the African-American community both because of his own introverted state as well as his fear of their response to his sexuality. He’s got a foot in two worlds that hate him, and it makes him the loneliest man alive. By upending these two characters and giving them an out, it allows their friendship to form naturally while preventing either from falling into a savior model. Now, I would be remiss if I claimed that this film did an immaculate job maintaining Shirley’s agency without – there are a few too many scenes where his idiosyncrasies are his entire character, especially early on when he is just a foil to Tony’s fun-loving ways. The first third of the movie involve Tony trying to explain the concept of jokes to Shirley, which…ok. And things feel even more uncomfortable whenever it operates under the impression that Tony has to teach Don how to be “black” – when he first plays Motown for the world-famous musician, he exclaims, “These are your people!” and it is strikingly uncomfortable. However, for the most part, the film condemns Tony’s more out-there sentiments, and Don Shirley is never left without agency for too long. He’s never unaware of his situation, and that despite his best efforts to educate the South on African-Americans, these rich racists are still going to make him use the outhouse rather than let the man they hired use the same bathroom as those he plays for. Furthermore, he’s never going to let Tony off the hook for being “better than these assh*les” – after a fight nearly breaks out when Shirley tries to go to an all-white bar, Shirley asks his driver, “If I were in a bar in your neighborhood, would things be any different?” And while the film often lacks subtleties in its portrayal of race and Don Shirley’s experience, there are several moments of real poignancy – close-ups on Shirley’s face and hands show us that he channels the pain of his life and his experiences into his art, and there’s a great shot of the pianist as he looks out on a plantation when the two stop on the side of the road – it’s a haunting metaphor for what Shirley’s life could have been if he hadn’t played his way out of the South, as well as the countless talents wasted by the horrors of segregation, Jim Crow, and institutional racism.
Unfortunately, it is in the execution of the story that this film becomes hit-and-and miss. Green Book works best when it focuses on the two protagonists and allows them to play off each other, morphing itself into a dual fish out of water story – Shirley in the South, Tony in high society. The minute these two are onscreen together, the film takes off. They have excellent banter together, especially in an early scene when Tony talks about how he and his wife listened to “that record with the creepy kids on the cover!” Shirley sardonically replies, “Tony, those weren’t kids on the cover. They were demons from the bowels of Hell.” To which the dumb, but witty Tony replies, “No sh*t. Must’ve been some naughty kids.” The script crackles when they are together, and the friendship feels real – when they first smile together throwing chicken bones out the window, it is a truly wonderful moment. However, this film isn’t just these two men having their own little Planes, Trains, and Automobiles moment. There’s a lot more to it than that, and unfortunately, it doesn’t all work. A lot of the issues in the film come from the writing and directing – despite its best efforts to find some depth in the weighty material, Green Book very rarely takes a deep dive into its own thematics. While I appreciate what he does with the material, I have to blame Peter Farrelly for this – with a background in comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, all he’s ever known is broad. Sure, he can pull off an emotional scene (he’s done it before with the likes of Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, and Cameron Diaz), and he can add a fun little visual flourish like the little map he adds to the corner to show how far the two have travelled. However, that’s as deep as he can go. Despite efforts to condemn his ignorant remarks, intentional or otherwise, Tony’s character remains a little too tidy – he learns fairly quickly, he never really comes to terms with his actions, and he’s a little too good at everything he does. It’s pretty evident that his son Nick wrote the script even if you hadn’t read his name in the opening credits. Furthermore, while there are some poignant moments like the aforementioned bar comment and an opening scene where Tony throws away two perfectly fine drinking glasses after they are used by African-American plumbers, Green Book still tries to traffic in the notion that the South is the only racist place, while New York is all fine and dandy – while I appreciated the little differences in the way the film portrays New York cops vs. Mississippi cops, it’s hard not to watch the intentional fake-out without screaming, “OH COME ON!” at the screen. Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, if anyone has the right to be offended by this film, it’s the Italians, because oh my God are these portrayals the definition of stereotypes. Everyone speaks like a guido charicature, with the big hand motions and the “fuhget about its!” I was going to make a joke about Viggo Mortensen’s character shouting, “I’M WALKIN’ HEAH!” the minute the movie started, only to find out that HE LITERALLY SAYS THIS IN THE MOVIE! I’m not kidding. As I said, this is a very broad, sometimes very lazy movie, but at the end of the day, I can’t be too hard on it: the sequences with the two actors facing off are really good, and they have an emotional climax set to Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” The filmmakers at least know how to do some things right.
When it comes to the acting this is pretty much a two-actor film. When it comes to Viggo Mortensen, I want to make it clear that he is doing something. He’s making very clear choices to play this character as a Big, Brash, Italian, and while I’m not sure it’s right for the movie, or that I even like the choices he’s making, he is objectively pulling them off. However, I will give Mortensen credit for a few smaller moments that I truly enjoyed – he truly encapsulates the “bullsh*t artist” mentality, he downs an entire pizza like nobody I’ve ever seen, and while his character is thankfully never a white savior, he does make for an excellent Angel of Vengeance. I could watch Viggo Mortensen punching racists in the face for days (no matter what Don Shirley says). Speaking of Shirley, I need to talk about Mahershala Ali’s performance. Don Shirley is a complicated role. This is a man who is a lonely, solitary drunk, shunned by two communities, trying to hide both his emotions and his sexuality, and who has had to embrace the Sidney Poitier mindset of the upright African-American citizen all his life. With this range of contradictions, this is a near-impossible role to pull off – which is why Ali’s skillful performance here should stand out as one of the best of the year. Ali dives headfirst into the role and balances the range of emotions perfectly, whether he’s drunk, scared, dignified, letting loose, or staring at a piece of fried chicken like he’s never seen it before (yeah, it’s a weird scene, but it kind of works in context, especially the way Ali plays it). If you see Green Book for any reason, make it for Mahershala Ali. There really aren’t that many major performances outside of the two leads, but two bit actors I want to give credit to are Brian Stepanek as a racist restaurant owner, as well as Iqbal Theba as Don’s Man Friday Amit. Oh, and a brief word about Linda Cardellini: Linda Cardellini is too good for most of the roles she’s taken in her adult career. This is a nothing role, mostly appearing in the background while Viggo wildly gesticulates and word vomits. But listen to the way she delivers her key lines, and the way she emotionally carries herself. She is an actress, and she either needs to have her roles increased or have better roles picked.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure Green Book is worthy of the prestige acclaim or the serious condemnation it has received (although the family’s complaints, while seemingly based predominantly on the trailer, are justified). It is most certainly a well-intentioned film, with a heart as big as the performance Viggo Mortensen is trying to give. It’s honestly more Planes, Trains and Automobiles than it is Driving Miss Daisy. However, its flaws, in both storytelling and execution, keep it from reaching the lofty ambitions it strives for – or worse yet, believes it has achieved. This will make a perfectly adequate TBS weekend viewing one day, and while you may not adore the film, I highly doubt you’ll be upset you watched it.