Film Review

'Green Book' has solid chemistry, but lacks depth of other films addressing race, friendship and prejudice

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 11/27/18

Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for his supporting performance in “Moonlight,” a layered, complex film traversing the intersection of race and sexuality from the perspective of the African-American experience. Two years later, Ali revisits those themes in “Green Book,” but in a far more elemental, reductive fashion.

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Film Review

'Green Book' has solid chemistry, but lacks depth of other films addressing race, friendship and prejudice

Posted

Grade: B –

Director: Peter Farrelly

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, and Linda Cardellini

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hr. 10 min.

Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for his supporting performance in “Moonlight,” a layered, complex film traversing the intersection of race and sexuality from the perspective of the African-American experience. Two years later, Ali revisits those themes in “Green Book,” but in a far more elemental, reductive fashion.

Ali portrays real-life piano virtuoso Don Shirley, a man of letters and musical acclaim who, in the early 1960s, embarked on a series of concert tours. His bodyguard for a trek through the Deep South is Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at the Copacabana who lucks into a gig driving Don around, equipped with the eponymous “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a mid-20th century guidebook for African-American travelers to find black-friendly hotel, restaurants, and other establishments during the Jim Crow era.

This buddy road trip movie is built around Don and Tony’s odd couple pairing. Don chafes at Tony’s impertinent manner, while Tony is, well, a racist who drops drinking glasses used by a couple of black repairmen in the trash bin rather than let them touch his lips again. Along their odyssey, Tony comes to admire Don and how he nobly suffers racial prejudice. Meanwhile, Tony helps Don appreciate Little Richard and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fair trade, right?

Directed by Peter Farrelly (yep, one-half of the (in)famous Farrelly Brothers), “Green Book” is not as patronizing as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side,” other crowd-pleasing race-based films directed with TV movie simplicity – but it’s also a step below “Hidden Figures.” There’s an easy, enjoyable chemistry between the two leads, even if Mortensen’s broad mamaluke schtick quickly grows tiresome (in real life, Tony Lip became a bit actor with roles in “Goodfellas,” “Donnie Brasco,” and “The Sopranos”).

The screenplay, co-written by Tony’s son Nick (who also has a supporting role), primarily focuses on Tony’s redemption story in lieu of an exhaustive examination of either Don’s life or the cultural and institutional origins of the Green Book itself. This narrative choice has opened the film up to criticism as being another “white savior” movie, a critique that’s not quite fair. Still, the plot is rendered from Tony’s perspective, which comes with its virtues and faults.

One casualty is the cursory manner the script handles Don’s backstory, one more intriguing and instructive than Tony’s. In real-life, Don was born in Florida to Jamaican parents, played piano from age two, studied abroad at age nine, and could speak eight languages. He composed music, recorded albums, and was friends with Duke Ellington. These aspects are barely mentioned in the film, if at all. The same goes for Don’s failed marriage and his estrangement from his brother, sidelights which are introduced and never explicated. We’re repeatedly informed it was Don’s courageous decision to embark on this Southern swing, but we never hear his personal motivations. We see Tony rescue Don from some rednecks at a Louisville bar, but we don’t witness the origins of the melancholy that motivated Don to depart from the strictures of the Green Book and make a late-night detour to this dangerous dive.

We also see Tony rescue Don from arrest at a Macon, Georgia YMCA, where a naked Don apparently rendezvous with a male stranger. Indeed, the film’s most egregious misstep regarding Don is the cursory manner it addresses his homosexuality, which isn’t mentioned prior to the episode at the YMCA and is quickly waved away one scene later when Tony says he knows that life is “complicated.”

But “Green Book’s” biggest flaw isn’t framing its story around Tony’s racial reclamation. It’s whether the film actually accomplishes this purpose. Tony clearly comes to respect Don, a man he spends the better part of two months traveling with, a man who speaks with the diction of a white person, who plays piano as well as the black musicians Tony hears on the radio, and, perhaps most importantly, pays well. But while Tony ultimately invites Don to his family’s Christmas table, it’s not altogether obvious by film’s end whether Tony would now drink after those African-American repairmen. The film asks us to assume as much without any clarifying moments or objective indicia. Tony becomes woke because he accepts Don, and that lesson is the embodiment of “some of my best friends are black.”

In one fleeting standout moment, Don laments that he feels like a person without a race or gender. It’s this level of complexity that “Green Book” could have explored. Instead, the film is enjoyable, even thought-provoking in parts. But it doesn’t merit the prestige that comes with its awards-season release.

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