“The world is full of lonely people scared to make the first move.”
Green Book is a film about racism made by white people for audiences of old white people. It seems like every year these kind of films are released, each specifically tailored for a long awards campaign. They attempt to make some grandiose, profound statement about societal injustices both past and present, yet they always come across as hokey and manufactured in their earnestness. They mean well, but ultimately, they do more harm than good. Unfortunately, these kind of films tend to make Academy voters fall head over heels in love with them, which only leads to more films like it getting green lit by studios hungry for the notoriety that comes with winning awards. Last awards season, there was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that positioned itself as an edgy, harsh rebuke of the kind of toxic institutional racism embedded in the South that helped catapult Donald Trump into the White House, but ended up being just as hateful, and its depiction of the fictional town of Ebbing felt like a town that didn’t actually exist on this planet. Its broad, simplistic statements about police brutality, toxic masculinity, and rape culture, also felt divorced from reality, especially with its treatment of Sam Rockwell’s racist deputy character and its desperate attempt to make him a sympathetic person by the end credits. But, like clockwork, the film, like many like it that have come before it, was a hit with audiences and became a major Oscar player, ultimately winning two for Best Actress and Supporting Actor. There’s no real logical explanation as to why these films get award buzz. If I had to guess, it’d be because, at their core, they are just actor showcases filled with manufactured moments tailored made for various clips you see during award shows, and the voters for these awards are mostly actors who go crazy when they see acting with a capital A. Surprisingly, Green Book hasn’t really taken off with audiences financially, which might indicate fatigue, but the film seems to be well positioned for many major award nominations this year, so really, the box office receipts thus far don’t really mean anything because audiences will eventually flock to see it as the nominations begin to pile up. If you build a heartwarming, adorable film about racism, the old white people will come.
Green Book is supposedly based on a true story, but while watching it, you find it hard to believe that any of what you are seeing on screen actually happened as depicted. Its cardinal sin is it wants to show us the kind of discrimination African Americans dealt with in the early 1960s, but mainly does so through the eyes of a white person unaffected by bigotry. The white person at the heart of the film is Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a racist Italian bouncer who works at the Copacabana and moonlights as an enforcer for local mobsters. At his core, he’s basically a hustler, willing to do whatever it takes to put food on the table for his wife and two sons. The Copacabana closes down for a few months for renovations, which means Tony is out of a job, causing him to interview for a driver job for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an accomplished African American concert pianist who is set to embark on a tour of the deep South. Mortensen plays Lip as some broad Italian caricature and the scenes in which he interacts with his Italian family and friends comes close to parody. It’s almost as if Mortensen watched Andrew Dice Clay stand-up specials and episodes of The Sopranos for character inspiration. There’s not a single scene that doesn’t have Mortensen eating something or saying some variation of “fuhgedaboutit” or “why you breaking my balls?”. So much food is consumed by Mortensen in this film, you’d think his character was a competitive eater not a mob enforcer. In one scene, he folds up a large pizza and eats it like a sandwich. The depiction of Italian culture in Green Book almost reaches a Gotti-level of awfulness. But hey, what does one expect from a film about racism directed by one half of the directing duo behind Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary? Yes, Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly Brothers is the man behind the camera. His presence is felt during the film’s repeated attempts at laugh-out-loud humor (usually at the expense of Shirley’s lack of blackness and Lip’s appetite), but the humor doesn’t exactly land, especially when supposed sentimental moments come shortly after. There’s just a clash of different tones and Farrelly isn’t really the kind of filmmaker capable of balancing them. There’s no real cohesion between scenes. Some are meant to be funny others are meant to be serious. Sometimes, scenes are meant to be both. You don’t take the serious scenes seriously because the film itself has no interest in taking them seriously. For a film built around the idea of an African American pianist touring the deep South in the early 1960s, there isn’t really any danger or tension. Everything about the racism shown on screen is clichéd and has been handled with more intelligence and nuance in much better films. As a matter of fact, two of them, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting, came out just this past summer.
If Green Book had focused solely on Don Shirley and not Tony Lip, it might’ve been something worthwhile, but unfortunately, the film wants its audience to laugh at how colorful Lip is and shrug off his deeply seeded prejudices. It’s really a shame so much attention is focused on Mortensen’s character because Mahershala Ali is really good as Don Shirley in what will undoubtedly lead to Best Supporting Actor nominations at every awards show. Ali is an actor who commands every scene he’s in, and his performance in Green Book is no exception. He works his ass off with what little he has. You actually end up feeling bad for him for taking this role, and even if he wins his second Oscar for it, you’ll see an interview where Ali will openly regret taking this role, which basically consists of him being the Magical Negro who uses his genius to help Mortensen’s character adequately express his love for his wife through the use of letters. It’s just sad to see Ali being wasted in something like this because the idea of Shirley being a homosexual musical prodigy who is an outsider to both the sophisticated white audiences he performs for and members of his own race is something that would make for a very interesting biopic, but it’s cast aside in favor of showing Lip’s simplistic progression as a character where he goes from being very racist to being not so racist. In fact, most of the relationship between Lip and Shirley centers around Lip trying to make Shirley more accepting of his blackness. Lip scoffs when Shirley has no idea about famous African American musicians like Little Richard, and he’s flummoxed when he finds out Shirley has never eaten fried chicken before in his life. I mean, what black person has never eaten fried chicken, am I right? Of course, as the film goes along, each become more accepting of the other as Lip defends Shirley from the film’s cartoonish, evil racists that they run into during their journey through the South. In Green Book, everybody is a caricature except the film’s most complex character, but this isn’t a film interested in complexities. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone saying “I’m not a racist, I have black friends.”