We’ve come a long way in the past decade when it comes to telling interesting narratives in film. Back in the 1990s, stories that took the “Kum ba yah” approach to race, struggle, and storytelling. It’s nice to imagine a world where simple friendship can solve our biggest problems. However, the past twenty years have basically put a nail in that coffin. With the rise of the internet, it has become much harder to hide from the issues we have in a very divided America. That makes Green Book, the latest film from Peter Farrelly, a seemingly outdated story that preaches for us all to get along. People will go to the movies and believe they enjoyed it. Thanks to a blazing performance from Mahershala Ali, you might even believe that Green Book is a good movie.
Green Book follows the story of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer who displays some racist tendencies. Due to his reputation and the Copacabana shutting down for renovations, he goes to a job interview to drive a doctor through the South. It turns out, the doctor is “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an accomplished black concert pianist. He wishes to go on tour through the deep south during the height of Jim Crow, in the early 1960s (Robert Kennedy is Attorney General). Tony takes the job at the urging of his wife (Linda Cardellini), and the two embark on a road trip across America. Along the way, they encounter racism and hate, but together, they overcome the issues between them and forge a strong friendship.
The concept of Green Book is simple and predictable. If that were the only crimes the film had, it would be more enjoyable as a watch. The issue is the way in which the story is told. Frankly, there are a lot of problems with the actual point of view of various scenes, and Farrelly’s construction of scenes. Most of this stems from the fact the movie is told mostly through Tony Lip’s perspective, despite being a far less interesting character. You can barely blame the screenwriting team for this issue though. One of the credited screenwriters is Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s son. It makes sense that a good portion of this screenplay was meant to honor his father, and the lifelong friendship that was created during the trip. The problem is that Brian Hayes Currie and Farrelly did not seem to push back on the idea of making Shirley a supporting character.
Ali towers over this film as Shirley and should receive his second Oscar nomination for his performance. It cannot be understated how many scenes are elevated by his presence on screen. If you ever want to understand how actors bring non-scripted moments into a performance, this is one to watch. The ways in which Ali gestures, moves his body, and changes facial expressions suggests there is a lot going on at every second. You can even tell when Ali is portraying Doc thinking about a musical piece, reading his mind as he works through the difficult machinations of concert piano. Ali shines bright in every second of the film, and even when he’s not on screen, you wonder what he is up to. Ali so masterfully disappears into the role, you will never be able to see Doc Shirley again without thinking of Ali. They are now one and the same, and Ali proves “Moonlight” was far from a one-off performance.
Mortensen also adds levels and layers to Lip, which helps pay off many moments throughout the film. He goes a bit heavy into the “goombah” persona at times, but based on everything we know about the character, this seems legitimate. After all, the actual Tony Lip would one day play a mob boss on “The Sopranos.” Mortensen brings the silly character to life, but outside of a few moments, it feels mostly like a comedy turn. That’s not a problem in a vacuum. However, it speaks to larger issues in the movie.
In the context of the film, it feels like the movie does not fully comprehend the moment in America we are in now. You cannot separate a film from the moment it releases in, and the “aw shucks” way it approaches racism and homophobia feel really out of touch. These issues genuinely exist for many Americans, and to boil the issue of racism down to simply getting to know someone ignores the violence of the past few years. In the wake of a shooting in a synagogue and Charlottesville, these issues are present.
This story helps to assuage the guilt of a lot of white Americans, rather than hold authentic and genuine conversations about hate. Instead, we’re treated to scenes where Viggo teaches Ali to like fried chicken (which becomes a recurring joke), a barrage of moments where Ali’s Shirley learns to be “less uptight,” and moments where Viggo’s character says genuinely offensive things, but Ali learns to enjoy his company. If anything, Green Book may reinforce some of the negative issues we have in America today, because it gives a pass to people who say or does inappropriate things, because racism can be overcome by merely being forced to spend time together.
The real trick with Green Book is how Ali and Mortensen make you believe this is a good movie. They are both giving strong performances, with Ali putting on a masterclass performance. Frankly, there may not have been two other actors in Hollywood who could have made this work. While the film has good intentions, it can’t help but feel like it is from 1993. Between feeling out of touch, and the very frustrating scenes of casual racism, this one severely lacks an understanding of the issue it attempts to discuss.