Beyond Oscar-chasing producers, it’s hard to discern for whom exactly Green Book was made. Those who saw powerful character catharsis in The Help but found distasteful its scene of shit literally served to racists? People who hoped Hidden Figures would be more like an archaic medicinal mush rather than a tale of how prejudice threatened to obscure mankind’s potential?
Perhaps Green Book is best suited to those who tsk-tsk and tut-tut “the way things used to be” without recognizing, well, that is the way things still are and, in many ways, likely to remain. Folks comforted by the fiction that Civil Rights victories vaccinated racism’s worst strains long ago and that the symptoms are not recurrent. In a year with easily a half-dozen films about race, past and present, that are both more trenchantly observed and built to please crowds, do we really need another plain, polite piffle that ultimately wants us to ponder more platitudes?
Unwilling to reckon with America’s past or present in a meaningful way, Green Book is largely a “my black friend” movie. It’s Dumb & Dumber co-director Peter Farrelly’s attempt to break out of the comedy ghetto. His dramatic sophistication could charitably be described as “functional.”
Like Farrelly’s signature film, Green Book is a road-trip buddy movie featuring: a traditionally dramatic actor shifting gears in an impressively broad comic turn; confrontations rooted in homophobia, albeit with greater seriousness than the Seabass incident; and an unexpectedly recurrent mob presence because the Farrellys love their criminals. If nothing else, Farrelly knows the road-movie rhythm well enough to keep things moving quickly across 130 minutes.
However painfully naïve and average Green Book feels, it’s hard to imagine its ineptitude if Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali were not at its center. Whatever intermittent power the film summons is solely thanks to powerhouse performers trading conversationally antagonistic blows with one another — Mortensen with the wide-reach haymakers, Ali with the bob-and-weave jabs with classism in one corner and racial prejudice in another. Although Green Book over-relies on them to reel things back to relatable places, at least they sometimes achieve it.
Mortensen plays Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana circa 1962. When he’s closing his fists to cool off hotheads, Tony is a light-fingered lout — snagging gangsters’ hats from the club’s coat check to return them for foldable rewards later.
The way Mortensen physically handles the acceptance of cash, like punctuation to a declarative sentence, is a fine snippet of subtlety in an otherwise booming and boorish performance that’s like nothing the Oscar-nominated actor has ever done. Does Mortensen otherwise embrace every Italian stereotype and — in a scene where Tony folds not one slice but an entire pizza to eat it — seem to invent new ones? Sure, but he’s loose and lively for a change, and the un-clenching suits him.
Mortensen also uncovers a sort of sly self-awareness in Tony’s social progressiveness if not his racial prejudices. At a place like the Copa, you know anything goes as far as sexuality is concerned. Fundamentally, Tony’s got no issue with that. He’s seen it all. In this review’s first pass, I was so stunned by Mortensen’s unexpected physicality that I was probably inserting subtleties that weren’t there — getting the feeling that unlike his relatives who toss slurs in public under the cowardly cover of Italian language, Tony was making insensitive comments or gestures simply as a way of keeping up appearances. Here, on reflection, I can see I was lulled even though the movie says it outright: One of Tony’s most valuable skills is knowing how to split the difference between lying and bullshitting. Had there been, say, a scene in which Tony lamented the need for performative racism in his culture while downing an entire bag of potato chips, that might have been a more viable takeaway. Regardless of these inconsistencies, the character still represents an intriguing pivot from Mortensen’s usual.
Tony needs all the money he can get with a full brood at home and mold in his floors, so it’s not the best time for two months off while the Copa closes for renovations. There are only so many hot-dog eating contests a man can win, and Tony draws the line at mob enforcement. When Tony gets an offer to drive for “a doctor,” he assumes it’s a physician. In fact, it’s Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a chamber-jazz pianist and composer who has decided to take a pass on another round of ass-kissing gigs on the Upper East Side for a Christmastime tour of the deep, deep South.
Don is immediately suspicious of Tony’s lack of social graces. But more than his driving or manners, it’s the intimidation / protection factor Don knows Tony can provide in territory where Don is less than welcome. (The film takes its title from a publication African-Americans used to determine safe hotels, restaurants and services in segregated states.) It’s a cool $1,000 plus voluminous meals and expenses, but Tony’s tradeoff is to be an absentee father and husband to his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) at the holidays. Hoping they can haul it back from Birmingham in time for him to be home on Christmas Eve, Tony takes the job. After initial clashes, the duo start to wear down each other’s well-fortified defenses and forge a friendship.
Making Tony the focal point of Green Book is unsurprising, given that it’s co-written by one of his sons. But the movie often seems bizarrely disinterested in Don, an especially weird choice since the role has gone to a deserved Oscar-winning actor for Moonlight. It too often constricts the complexities you’d want to know more about from a black, gay, alcoholic musical genius in the 1960s into a fastidious, fussy Felix to Mortensen’s Oscar; indeed, Don’s homosexuality and alcoholism are suspiciously confined to two scenes that say “See, we mentioned those!” They’re flourishes for the filmmakers rather than traits on which to elaborate and expand. Instead, Green Book paints Don as a tabula rasa for traditional behavior; perhaps that’s easier than referencing his early career as a psychologist whose sonic experimentation studied a potential relationship between music and crime.
Even as Green Book minimizes Don, you feel Ali mulling Don’s multitudes. His suppressed shame at a lack of conversance in more popular African-American culture. His resentment of the way his record company refashioned his redolent classical-music aptitude into a more palatable package. The self-destructive way he knows not to go out alone in certain towns without Tony but does it anyway. The regret in Don’s thousand-yard stare when reminiscing about the sibling relationships he’s lost to stubbornness and the ex-wife to whom he could never truly commit.
The film jokes too often about how Don comes to help Tony write better letters from the road to Dolores — ones that don’t look like “piecemeal ransom notes.” However, Ali’s performance in these scenes underlines the pain Don feels at all the things he could not, and still cannot say, and it comes to a boil during what will certainly be Ali’s second Oscar clip, and deservedly so. The entirety of Don’s life feels like a continual compromise and concession. In a film where conflict is otherwise easily squashed, Ali makes this moment a powder-keg of uncertainty and misery.
And yet Green Book doesn’t really want you to go home thinking about that. Not when one of Don’s fellow musicians suggests Don has undertaken the tour to go beyond genius and display “the courage to change people’s hearts.” The Don that Ali shows us seems like he is, at least, doing this to see if all the stories of racism are true and, at best, trying to learn something new about himself in the process. At no point does he seem to give a tinker’s damn about other people’s hearts — especially for audiences as insidiously or openly racist as those he regularly encounters, sometimes on the verandas of plantations where slaves once roamed. For a film with so much featured music, it’s strangely anodyne about its power to connect people with disparate belief systems.
If there’s any heart about whom Don cares in this movie, it’s Tony. But you can’t win an Oscar these days with a movie that’s just about two men challenging one another’s myopia. It’s got to say something that sounds profound, even if it’s both clumsy and disingenuous as it is here. For all the masterful pauses, emphases and gestures at their command, Mortensen and Ali can’t save this movie. At one point bemoaning a diner dish as “salty,” Tony says a true chef could make any meal taste good using only natural flavors. “Salt is cheap,” he says. Sadly, so is Green Book.