“It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”
Here’s the thing: for all of the troubling subtext and the endless pandering of this picture, Green Book means well and, for the most part, tends to have its heart in the right place. Set during a road trip through the deep South in 1962, it’s the kind of historical movie consciously made for modern times, trying to infuse us with a heavy dose of feel-good when everything around us seems to feel so bad. I admire its effusive and overwhelming earnest. However, what’s wrong is the perspective and it’s inability to convey the level of grief that comes from a genuine sense of guilt.
As a bouncer at New York’s famous Copacabana nightclub, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) makes a living as a pot-bellied enforcer, and occasionally as a semi-professional swindler. Tony’s also an insatiable glutton, as well as a casual racist, at least to start. When his wife (Linda Cardellini) serves two black repairmen a drink in their home, Tony tosses the glasses in the bin. His assumptions of these strangers are self-righteous. Yet he needs to find a steady source of income with the Copa closed for renovations. He even eats 26 hots dogs for $50 at one point, and I imagine would have done it for far less. So when the prolific pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) asks Tony to chauffeur him through the racist red roads of 1960’s America, Tony reluctantly accepts the job. The gig pays too good to pass up.
Tony Drives and yammers and stuffs his face with food (I’ve never seen anyone, drunk or sober, fold an entire pizza in half until now). Don, a far more sophisticated and highfalutin man, looks on in baffled amazement. How can two people from such vastly different worlds call the same planet home? They have their disagreements and their similarities, and the film works best when the camera remains static on this odd-couple, simply capturing two phenomenally empathetic actors playing a great one-on-one pickup game against each other. Ali feels far too stiff from the get go until we discover it to be a defense mechanism, although his most emotional scene pairs well with the impeccable character work from Mortensen. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed watching them interact together, even though I loathed the mixed message of the movie that surrounds them.
So much of what’s wrong with Green Book can be gleaned from which character’s point of view guides the entire picture. You have a prodigious African-American pianist who’s scholarly, emotionally reserved, in the closet, and who bravely chooses to endure this harsh endeavor. And yet the film still focuses its principal perspective on the redemptive journey of the white man who learns to be civil and moral along the way. I can’t imagine what kind of movie Green Book might have been in the hands of modern auteurs like Barry Jenkins or Ava Duvernay or Steve McQueen, or from anyone else who identified more deeply with the marginalized characters for that matter. Instead, from Peter Farrelly, this noble true story is told from the less interesting and less challenging line of sight, and the entire thing feels like a typically comedic filmmaker going in for his first dramatic kiss. Green Book has good intent and bad execution.
“To make it taste good without the salt, with just the other flavors…that’s the trick.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
I liked it a lot, maybe because I accepted it for what it is. Green Book was written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real-life Tony Lip. Nick (seen as young kid in the movie) grew up listening to his father’s stories from the trip, and wrote the script based on these recollections (with of course plenty of fictionalization). No surprise the film is therefore from Tony’s perspective.