Directed by Peter Farrelly
Screenplay by Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallalonga and Bryan Hayes Currie
Starring Viggo Mortenson, Mahershala Ali, and Linda Cardellini
As awards season 2018 marched to its bitter end, I resisted seeing Green Book. In a year in which I’d seen 5 0f the 8 nominees in theaters, and saw the sixth on video, and just couldn’t make time for Vice, Green Book was the one film I didn’t even try to make time for. It didn’t matter that as time went on it looked increasingly to be the presumptive winner, and maybe I should see it out of curiosity. It only mattered it was shit on by critics as being sloppy in how it deals with the racial aspects of its story. But also, I worried that the director of There’s Something About Mary, and Dumb and Dumber, might not be the best guy to take charge of a story that deals with race relations. Yes, we should encourage guys to try to get out of their creative ruts whenever they can, but perhaps this was all too much of a swerve for one man’s own good.
Then, when the film won Best Picture over my preferred choice, The Favourite, I really had no other choice but to see what all the fuss, both good and bad, was about. There would be no further resistance.
What’s It About?
Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), is a renowned piano player in the late-1950s and early 1960s. He also happens to be black at a time when half the country had a problem with that, and also gay at a time when almost all the country had a problem with that. Still, he insists on a concert tour of the deep south, so needs somebody to drive him, and to be a bit of a bodyguard along the journey. Preferably, a white guy. So he hires is Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson) an Italian from the Bronx, who is steeped in all that goomba charm. Along the journey the two men learn a little bit about intolerance, prejudice, and acceptance, and by the end they become friends.
How Was It?
I’m gonna be honest. When I realized I was going to have to see Green Book for this series I steeled myself for what the reviews painted it as: some pandering, piece of tripe that soft-soaps a story of prejudice in order to make the white guy a hero, while eventually reaching the pat conclusion about how we should all just get along. And while the movie was a little bit of that, I was quite surprised to find Green Book was also just too damned friendly, good-natured, and ingratiating to hate. And with a cast this charming, you have to work hard not to like it.
The films greatest asset is the humor and odd couple narrative of Tony and Dr. Shirley. The Ali/Mortenson chemistry, and the gravitas and skill they bring to their roles, are what help the more problematic bits of the story go down. In fact, it’s probably their geniality which probably most turned off critics. Particularly, that a film that deals with racism, should not be humorous, or entertain. And while I usually find myself checking my watch at least once during a movie, wondering when it’s going to be over, that did not happen here. The movie was brisk, did not overstay it’s welcome, and did not wear me out. To me, that makes Green Book a success.
That all said, being a good and enjoyable movie is not the same as the best movie, which Green Book is not. And that it won awards for Best Picture without being truly best is probably its greatest sin. After all, if it had lost to Roma or The Favourite, Green Book would just be that movie about racism that your grandparents can watch without being made to feel bad about themselves. But because it won, at the expense of a few movies that are clearly better than it, means now Green Book has to be freighted with the baggage of being a destroyer, and must answer for all the ills of the world. That not only can it not be judged on its own terms any longer, now it’s faults must be magnified simply because it won Best Picture.
In its own way, Green Book belongs in the same category of movies that people hate for extra-textual reasons, like American Sniper, or Hacksaw Ridge, or Crash. These aren’t films that are hated so much on their own merits, but for wholly extraneous reasons. Perhaps the main character was a disgusting asshole in real life, which the movie doesn’t engage on. Or the director is a disgusting asshole in real life. Or the film is simplistic on race relations and beat a far superior film for an award. Which is to say that their films aren’t hated for whether they are a success own their own terms as a movie, but for reasons unrelated to it. Because of the win, they will never again be just a movie.
That all said, while comparing Green Book to Driving Miss Daisy is lazy and reductive, as many critics did, it does hit on a bit of truth. This film is simplistic, but I don’t know what more to expect from a Hollywood film in most instances. This is what happens when you streamline a story for the screen, or insist on making it a good cinematic experience, rather than the god’s-honest-truth. Yet, somehow people are shocked by this and instead of just shrugging their shoulders at the little bit of the white savoir/magic negro narrative the film trots out for the sake of narrative efficiency, they treat it like a hate crime.
At the same time, I think the critics maybe misunderstand what Green Book is doing and judge it all-the-harsher over that. To me, this is not a movie with really anything to say about racism-writ-large. Rather, it is how intolerance and prejudice touched the lives of these two men, how they each dealt with it, how they came to learn from the other’s experiences, and grew from them. Similarly, while there are cringe-worthy aspects to Driving Miss Daisy, it’s not a story about racism, as much as it’s a story about two specific people that the writer of that film knew personally. Just as the writer of this film knew his subjects.
Of course, I am a white man and don’t feel the weight of racism the same as others do, so where others see something patently offensive, I see a simplistic story, with a good bit of humor to it, that is meant to play more like an odd couple/buddy comedy than a scathing treatise on race relations. I fully accept and understand and validate how other people, with different experiences than mine, see the film differently than I do.
As for the claim the film plays loose with the facts of the story, I’m bewildered that people went into this movie – or any movie – expecting complete fidelity to unadulterated truth. After all, unless you are watching the raw, uncut footage of the actual events taking place, you’re already compromising the story. As soon as one person cuts anything out, or casts an actor, or tweaks a line of spoken word, the story has been shaped for you and is no longer the truth. Rather, it is the truth according to one person’s presenting of it. And to ignore the value of a movie simply because it remembers it’s first job is to entertain, is being disingenuous to the extreme.
And yet, for all the criticism heaped upon Green Book for being simplistic and reductive and white-savoirish, the film is incredibly sensitive to Don Shirley. At all times it strides to allow him his dignity, even when he makes mistakes – and there are a few. It never demonizes him for being black, nor deifies him. He is genuinely a complicated man and we care for him. So, when he is harassed for being black, you feel it. When he’s cuffed and naked after a gay encounter in the deep south, we see just how vulnerable he is. When he’s alone at the end, we feel that, too. The movie treats Dr. Shirley fairly at all times and is the better for it.
Still, I wonder what this movie is like if it’s not told from the white man’s perspective, but from the black man’s. I would love to see what Donald Shirley’s experiences were like on the road, and how he dealt with being a gay black man at a time when neither were acceptable. But that’s not this film and shouldn’t be judge for being what it isn’t.
I really shouldn’t be surprised that the movie treats the subject matter with a fairly high level of sensitivity. After all, despite coming from a place of gross-out humor, Peter Farrelly’s films have always been inclusive. Look at Shallow Hal, which treats the non-body-normative people no differently from the normies and, in fact, treats the normies generally as a bunch of shallow assholes.
The acting of the two leads was damn good. Viggo Mortenson as Tony Lip is a bit broad in his characterization, playing his role as something like Foghorn Leghorn-meets-a real-Bronx goomba. He’s big and performative, and seems cartoonish, but Tony Lip is a cartoonish guy. After all, he’s pretty clear in telling us he got the nickname Tony Lip because he’s a master bullshitter. So, to see a guy who goes big in order to bullshit people just feels right.
Mahershala Ali is just perfect. His role doesn’t call for a lot of broadness from him, but more subtlety, as that’s what he’d have to be if he wanted to survive as a black man in the deep south. Because of that, the role limits what Ali can do to get his character across and the good thing about Ali is he is masterful at playing scenes with just a glance or a certain posture. I don’t know any other actor who can build a whole character with understatement and often little more than what he does with his eyes.
If I had one complaint with the film, and it’s a big one, it’s that as the movie is called Green Book, it would have been nice if it weren’t so perfunctory about what the green book was and what it did.
 I actually saw The Favourite twice.
 That’s what happens when Black Panther is released so early in the year. It also happens when you have a fairly strict policy against seeing marvel movies in the theaters, like I do.
 It was compared to Driving Miss Daisy, and not positively. Since I basically dislike that movie, the bad comparison put me off Green Book.
 Remember, I saw that twice in the theaters, which is why I was so tickled when Olivia Coleman won Best Actress. Honestly, the true greatness of Coleman’s performance is in how it sneaks up on you with the pathos and the emotion. It’s great on first viewing, but truly comes alive on second.