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Green Book Movie Review

Green Book (2018) movie poster Green Book

Theatrical Release: November 16, 2018 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Peter Farrelly / Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Frank Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga), Mahershala Ali (Dr. Don Shirley), Linda Cardellini (Dolores Vallelonga), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny Venere), Dimiter D. Marinov (Oleg), P.J. Byrne (Record Producer)

 

Race has been on the nation's minds a lot this year. It's also been on Hollywood's minds a lot. The issue of race in Hollywood usually comes down to black people, their representation and portrayals or lack thereof.
So we can celebrate Crazy Rich Asians as a win for diversity and inclusion, but commercial success was that movie's prize. A number of movies about black people are the ones that have a shot at awards and will be discussed and debated for the six months that started with the late-summer festivals and conclude at the end of February with the Oscars themselves.

People began talking about the subject before last year's Oscars even took place. Could Marvel's absurdly lucrative Black Panther break through the ceiling that hangs over superhero movies? The Academy even invented and then cancelled a popular movie award that would ensure recognition for it. Late summer brought BlacKkKlansman, a film that seemed sure to give Spike Lee the Oscar nominations that have mostly eluded him until now. Those two entertaining, very different films were universally praised by critics, but it's a different race-minded film with a different color in its title that seems a bigger contender for 2018's major awards.

Green Book opens with the declaration that it is "inspired by a true story", which is usually a nice way of saying extensive dramatic license has been taken. I'm not sure that's the case and I'm not sure that it matters because remaining true to a story known by few and that personally affected fewer is not high on the list of concerns this movie raises.

What an odd couple Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) make, touring the deep South in 1962 in "Green Book."

It's late 1962. Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a.k.a. Tony Lip, is a lifelong Bronx resident who works as a bouncer at the Copacabana. A fat Italian-American family man with a thick accent, a modest vocabulary, and too many disgusting habits to mention, Tony is highly regarded by the community for his skill at handling messes. We see one such mess early on when he has to repeatedly punch out an unruly patron. With the Copa closing for months of renovations, Tony is suddenly in need of work and he gets called in to interview for a driving job for some doctor.

The doctor, it turns out, is accomplished pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), who is about to embark on an eight-week tour through the Deep South right up until Christmas Eve. Shirley is an African-American and this being 1962, Tony is racist. How racist? Racist enough to dispose of drinking glasses in which his wife (Linda Cardellini) served lemonade to a couple of black handymen. There are people way more racist than Tony whom we will encounter. He is less fazed by Shirley's race than the job's pay and the nature of the work, which Shirley describes as more personal assistant than mere chauffeur.

With his wife agreeing to him being gone for two months and the Doctor agreeing to pay him $125 a week plus expenses, Tony and Shirley hit the road in a bright blue car to start in the Midwest and work their way south to increasingly hostile and prejudiced environments. Shirley and his trio, comprised with a Russian violinist and an American cellist, are to perform for wealthy and important white people. But the artist still runs into narrow minds and backwards thinking, like when he and Tony are pulled over and thrown in jail for driving at night through a neighborhood where black people can't be on the road after dark.

Count the number of ways in which Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) differ: race, style, posture, lifestyle, health...

Directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, who's known for the outrageous comedies he directed and co-wrote with his brother Bobby like Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary, Green Book is something of a standard issue road trip buddy comedy. At its end, it is flagrantly derivative of John Hughes' Thanksgiving masterpiece Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
Before that, it's more akin to something like Driving Miss Daisy.

The two lead characters that drive the film are very different. Tony is an idiot with a good heart, a cringeworthy Italian caricature you never feel comfortable with Mortensen playing. Shirley is a sheltered loner. With the help of the car radio, Tony introduces him to such musicians as Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, and Chubby Checker. He also introduces his well-mannered, well-dressed boss to Kentucky Fried Chicken. That's about the height of the comedy here: the black guy doesn't know black musicians and fried chicken, but the white guy does. It's not a one-way friendship, though, as Shirley gives Tony some much-needed guidance to improve the letters he writes to his wife back home.

Mere weeks ago, The Hate U Give demonstrated that it is possible to consider race relations in a tasteful, tactful, thought-provoking way. Green Book doesn't have any interest in that, though. It would much rather give us broad characterization, old stereotypes, and the kind of history lesson that might leave a seventh grade social studies class feeling woke. To the intelligent, conscientious adult, it's a clumsy, embarrassing, manipulative display that is so clearly designed to make us feel warm, fuzzy, and good. Because if a thick-headed product of a racist time can become close friends with a cultured black man who also happens to be gay (a passing note improbably taken in stride), how bad can things in this world be?

My view of Green Book will forever be shaped by my first impression of it, which came in mid-October on the opening night of the Twin Cities Film Fest. The film played to a near sell-out crowd with producer Jeff Burke in attendance and was eaten up by the overwhelmingly white public, who laughed where they were supposed to and stood up and applauded at the end. If I saw the movie at a typical weeknight screening with the public on hand, I'm sure it would have gone similarly. If, however, I saw the movie in one of my 10 AM critics-only screenings, the vibe would have been different and I might have been less disgusted.

The prevalent view that critics are cynical and out-of-touch with the public is not off-base, but there are good reasons for that. Critics watch more movies than paying moviegoers. We see the bad ones you don't and the ones that aren't as good as you think because there are better ones you didn't see. We all have different tastes, but we appreciate things we haven't seen before, which are rare to encounter. We appreciate artistry and authenticity. We like when narratives surprise us and when points are subtle and require some thought.

There is nothing subtle about Green Book. Using prejudices of the past as a blanket, the movie just hammers home lessons about racism and understanding. It would be unfortunate if awards organizations prop this up as great cinema, when it's like an unfunny, heavy-handed, saccharine version of the 1997 Tim Robbins/Martin Lawrence comedy Nothing to Lose.

At my screening, it was said that Mortensen gained 50 pounds to play this role and started watching "The Sopranos" almost immediately after getting the script. His level of ethnic caricature is not far from Sacha Baron Cohen's take on a Kazakhstani journalist, but with none of the humor, satire, and wit. He's just this disgusting man who grows increasingly tolerant and protective of his employer. This is as unsavory as the actor's last movie to earn him an Oscar nomination, 2016's Captain Fantastic, was.

There's much more to like about Ali's performance, which will undoubtedly return him to the Oscar category he won two years ago for Moonlight. Refined, articulate, and with the soul of a poet, Shirley is the character we are supposed to sympathize with and we would if the movie around him weren't so darn graceless.

Related Reviews:
Oscar Contenders: The Hate U Give Black Panther BlacKkKlansman First Man A Star Is Born The Favourite Boy Erased
Viggo Mortensen: Eastern Promises The Road | Mahershala Ali: Moonlight The Hunger Games: 4-Movie Collection
The Intouchables Planes, Trains & Automobiles The Help Jersey Boys Detroit
Directed by Peter Farrelly: The Heartbreak Kid Hall Pass Kingpin The Three Stooges Movie 43

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Reviewed October 24, 2018.



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