Green Book is understandably a crowd-pleaser in post-2016 America. Some film critics have described Green Book as the cinematic equivalent of saying “I’m not racist–I have a black friend!” One could also aptly compare the film to Trump’s “both sides” comment responding to the injustices of Charlottesville in that Green Book aims to solve the systemic and historical rifts between white and black Americans by saying both groups are equally at fault and equally have something to learn from each other. Yet the film merely skims the surface of systemic American racism, choosing to forgo depth for formulaic feel-good tropes. In this, Green Book tries to play it safe in the race conversation while declaring its wokeness via its arguably manipulated self-congratulatory biography. It wants to have its fried chicken and eat it too.
Eating fried chicken is a repeated joke in Green Book, a film “inspired by a true story” about Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (a bloated, pizza-shoveling Viggo Mortenson), an Italian-American bouncer hired to drive African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a musical tour through the American South in 1962. Written by Tony’s son and actor Nick Vallelonga with Brian Hayes Curry and director Peter Farrelly (Dumber and Dumber, Dumb and Dumberer), the story takes an embellished, hagiographic approach to Tony’s experiences while remaining decidedly conventional and mediocre. In an early scene, Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) offers two black handymen glasses of water; a disgusted Tony throws their used glasses into the garbage (Dolores fishes them out later). We now know that he is clearly A Racist. Yet after being offered the driving job, the now-anachronistically tolerant Tony shows the stilted Dr. Shirley the joys of black music (Little Richard, Chubby Checker, etc), introduces Shirley to fried chicken (of course!), protects and defends Shirley’s gay orientation, and ultimately teaches Shirley how to stand up for himself as a black man. “I’m blacker than you!” Tony declares to Shirley at one point, indicating that race has more to do with experience and class than melanin or ethnicity. Apparently black people need white people to teach them how to be black, and white people need to be less angry and more dignified about racism (unless it’s convenient for them not to be). It is good that he took this driving gig, because Tony has become No Longer A Racist. We can all be like Tony–befriend a person of color so you can feel less uncomfortable, have a few laughs, and maybe even make some dough. Bada bing, bada boom: bigotry solved.
Green Book is for folks who enjoyed The Help but wish the story had less women. Beyond its heavy-handed Not All White People message, the filmmaking for this reverse-Driving Miss Daisy is strikingly uninteresting and derivative, crafted for easy digestion for the broadest audience possible (it’s rated PG-13, so it’s even okay for the kids!). The uninspired score tells us exactly how to feel in each scene, the medium shot-reverse shot conversations are formulaic, and every joke feels unsurprising and been-there-done-that, a conservative chuckle rather than a delightful escape of laughter. There are montages and maps and big title cards telling us where we’re at on this road trip of enlightenment. Though I decried Adam McKay’s Vice for its condescension and snark, at least McKay took some stylistic risks; Farrelly’s dull contrived approach makes the 2 hour and 10 minute running time feel like the two-month road trip it portrays. This style makes racism feel safe, which is precisely what it isn’t. Mortenson’s performance is so stereotypical and hammy that he feels more like a cartoon than a character; at one point, he folds an entire pizza in half and eats it while in bed. This working-class stiff act is clearly intended to be the foil to the hoity-toity Dr. Shirley living above Carnegie Hall on his literal African throne. These two guys could not *possibly* end up as BFFs, right? According to Green Book, they can–and so can you!
What’s troubling about this cinematic depiction of historical racism is how easy it makes it all seem while glossing over important details, such as the titular “green book” as a cultural artifact, which the two men never really discuss. Addressing racism via comedy is certainly doable and laudible–see Get Out and BlacKkKlansman for recent examples–but Farrelly’s well-meaning approach ultimately affirms unhealthy myths rather than dismantling them, all while audiences will eat it up. In this, the film has elicited a backlash from Shirley’s family about the portrayal of the friendship–apparently Vallelonga saw them as good buddies, but Shirley saw the relationship as one-time employer/employee–culminating in Ali apologizing to the Shirley family, while Farrelly and Co. have defended the film against the criticisms. Ali is the only redeeming aspect of the film, his performance distinct and nuanced in a sea of conventions and tropes. Two years ago, Moonlight won Best Picture and Ali won his first Oscar; with Green Book, Ali may win his second. Green Book won the Audience Award at TIFF in September and the Golden Globe for Best Picture this past Sunday, making it a front runner for the Oscars. Two long years. Look how far we’ve come.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6966692/