Director: Peter Farrelly
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Ever get the feeling Peter Farrelly saw Adam McKay shift gears from bawdy comedy to prestige drama and thought, “hey, I can do that“? This certainly seems like a credible scenario given the arrival of Green Book. The former creative talent behind There’s Something About Mary, Dumb And Dumber and, err, Movie 43 here changes tack – somewhat – for a feel-good slice of amiable Oscar bait, one that presently seems likely to achieve its feted end game.
It’s 1962. Schlubby Copacabana bouncer Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is offered a gig for the winter driving a doctor around the deep south. Tony is a family man and a racist. So, when he turns up at an apartment above Carnegie Hall to meet his prospective boss, he doesn’t expect to be greeted by an erudite black man, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali); the very definition of class and sophistication in New York. Shirley is a pianist. It is a concert tour of the southern states he is planning. Of course Tony says no; he won’t abide black servicemen drinking out of his kitchen glasses, let alone playing valet to an African-American of the social elite. Whaddayaknow, they end up on the road together anyway. Less Dumb And Dumber, more Wise And Wiseguy.
Green Book – based on the true story of these two men, but presented wholly from the perspective of Vallelonga – sets itself cruising even before the road trip portion of the story begins. This is as safe and by-the-numbers as Farrelly could have played this thing. Not a chance is taken. The film looks pleasant, showing off the American countryside just as readily as Clint Eastwood’s The Mule, and cinematographer Sean Porter ensures that the leads are bathed in warm, glossy light throughout.
This sense of safety through varnishing pervades throughout the meat of the piece, also. Dr Shirley’s homosexuality, for instance, is given the most cursory of glances (in keeping with the conservative trend of fellow best picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody), and it is curious that this aspect of the man’s life is actively hidden in the film’s promotional material. The film’s trailer cuts up an impassioned speech given by Shirley (in the rain, naturally; its more dramatic that way). From the trailer you’ll know he yells, “I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough… What the hell am I?” The full version also includes, “I’m not man enough”. That this has been selectively removed when advertising the film seems a bit rich, even hypocritical, seeing as the movie is often about minority relations and smothered voices in society.
On that score it’s a mixed report. Green Book ratchets up the southern (in)hospitality the further Shirley and Vallelonga progress into that neck of the woods, bluntly making the point that racism is bad and unfair (no shit). But there’s little gradation to the animosity they encounter. And at the same time, thanks to the mid-tempo requirements of Oscar bait, it rarely feels as though the pair are in the kind of genuine danger that the area was and remains capable of. What’s more insidious is the underlying suggestion that people of colour are allowed to exist and thrive in the United States only at the white man’s indulgence.
Ali plays Shirley as the quintessential black messiah character that is popular in white depictions of great black men. The Sidney Poitier type. It’s an exceedingly well performed iteration of the same, but it still feels as though it adheres to a cliché sustained primarily through white eyes. Vallelonga, for that matter, is cookie-cutter Italian American and Mortensen nails that, so you can’t win. These are well-played versions of defined and problematic ‘types’. There is always the bristle of their opposing classes converging to make hay out of. Dr Shirley is relentlessly condescending to Vallelonga, but this is often his only move against Vallelonga’s unceremonious prejudice. Mortensen’s Tony Lip is the ‘funny racist’ with a heart of gold. Aw shucks. The two bond, naturally, and each learns something from the other. It’s sweet, right? Right…?
And yet there are scenes like the one in which Shirley changes on a dime from classical to jazz piano when they stop off in a working class dive; scenes which seem determined to shortcut the assumption that – through interacting with Vallelonga – the proud, dignified Dr Shirley has learned to connect with his race who are, by default, humble folks. It’s as glaringly awkward as Green Book gets.
Yet, the thing is this movie’s too tame in its approach to really get worked up about. It has the feel of having been ushered to us very carefully by committee. A true studio picture, focus-grouped to a kind of awards-worthy purity. Blah. Ending at Christmas time, Green Book aims to be a rosy-cheeked heartwarmer. For some it will be. For others, this is a pedestrian road movie that’s often as not a little tone-deaf. One that doesn’t really lead anywhere.