Feel good, awards-ready holiday season has officially arrived with Green Book, a bit surprisingly, actually, given the serious nature of this not so thinly veiled buddy comedy.
The film hits all the plot points you’d expect (serious acting chops, holiday movie season, high drama on the path to box office dough and awards season gold), like cities on its poorly superimposed map that tracks progress from one racially intolerant southern city to another. That’s it’s problem. It’s predictable. It lacks the courage its character displays. It does what’s comfortable, earning three times as much as it might if it were to take a risk and take a stand.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Release Date: November 21, 2018
Based on true events, Green Book, features stellar acting from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen as Dr. Don Shirley, Jamaican classical pianist and Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, Italian driver, bodyguard and puncher of faces on tour through 1960s deep south America. They bring their already elevated A-games and there’s no need to dissect that.
The biggest failing, in trying to follow a formula, is not the buddy comedy nature of Green Book—though, frankly, that plays at odds with the prominent issues of race and discrimination in America, issues that feel just as relevant today—it’s the idea that the buddies must both learn each other which makes no sense. Why can’t the learning be one way? Vallelonga is a racist and a hothead with a propensity for violence. Sure, he loves his wife and family and has a moral code that doesn’t allow him to lie, but Dr. Shirley is a world-class artist and prodigy, a genius and virtuoso with intellect and drive that allow him to undertake an incredibly dangerous journey for no personal gain, but rather in the pursuit of societal gains. What is the moral imperative for the great man to learn from the morally flawed man?
Director Peter Farrelly constructs a false paradigm that Shirley is removed from his people and Vallelonga helps him get to know them by introducing him to fried chicken and encouraging him to perform for a restaurant full of black people rather than his usual crowd of rich white people. Shirley fights this notion, that he has anything to prove, or connect to, until with no logical impetus, he doesn’t fight it, and the movie continues to hit points on the formula checklist.
Fact check checklist: hitting points, following formulas, can enable you to make a great movie, but usually it will only deliver a good one in its stead. Greatness needs to move beyond formulaic, as when Shirley says no one can play Chopin like him. He puts his own spin on the music and the performance and elevates it over what others would produce following the same notes.
Maybe Farrelly might consider his own great dialog when constructing his next serious film. It’s clear that he’s been brought onboard for his comedic background here, ensuring that the film maintains an air of brevity even when confronting the worst of American racism pre-Civil Rights movement.Green Book, at cover value, doesn’t seem like the fare appropriate for the director of Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself & Irene, Hall Pass, and The Three Stooges. Obviously, he’s successful in this: the film is light, heartwarming and features wonderfully written dialog. Yet, it’s inauthentic owing to the handling.
Considering the recent release of Blackkklansman, another film that tackled the same challenging material and managed to do so with humor while by focusing on a character that took a stance and exhibited bold courage, the contrast is stark. Blackkklansman builds a case by not flinching at the harsh realities of the time and exhibiting the danger in real, visceral and historically accurate moments, concluding with a powerful allegorical connection to current events and the frightening realities of racism in modern America. Green Book takes an amazing historical figure and tells his story through a tone def effort that allows a happy ending without prompting audiences to think too hard about what they’re watching, enabling them to think racism is a bygone relic relegated to the historic south thanks to one racist man being won over the first time he hears a virtuoso’s music.
For all that, it’s still an enjoyable and well-constructed film. Both Mortensen and Ali are at the top of their game, and I’m in no way attributing this to Mortensen’s massive weight-gain he underwent to play Vallelonga. Cinematographer Sean Porter manages to insert some truly beautiful shots when the story allows for it, including a wide with both leads exiting the signature car in the rain that was breathtaking—it followed one of the better cinematic transitions I’ve seen where applause morphs into crescendoing rain splattering their car. Of course, Farrelly does what he does. The laughs are there and they are real--there’s a moment during the first meeting between Shirley and Vallelonga where they take a seat and Vallelonga finds himself looking up at Shirley who’s seated himself on a literal throne. In the early setting, it’s hilarious, the imbalance between them.
Green Book is a good film, but it could have been great, and it feels like it squandered its talent and its moment.