Nick Villelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton
PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material
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A film that might have felt at home or even been somewhat controversial back in the 1960s, ends up being a gentle, but harmless story about the unlikely friendship between a brash Italian bouncer and a conceited black piano virtuoso. Green Book stubbornly situates itself in the past without feeling the need to adequately frame itself for modern audiences.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Lip, a night club bouncer in New York City, whose rampant racism is given a tender touch as he takes on a spare job as chauffeur and bodyguard for a black pianist played by Mahershala Ali. Playing a concert tour of the south, Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) forces Tony to combat is racism while Tony teaches Don how to be black, at least the stereotypical black character he has laid out in his own mind. The titular book was one published for black travelers in the south indicating what lodging was safe to stay in.
You’d be forgiven if watching this film you were reminded of films like In the Heat of the Night or Driving Miss Daisy, which features none of the hard edges one would expect from modern explorations of race relations during the Civil Rights Era. Looking and feeling like a film made thirty or fifty years ago, director Peter Farrelly wants to explain to audiences how bad racism is, but to do so in the least threatening way possible. With neither the heart of Driving Miss Daisy, nor the biting racial commentary of In the Heat of the Night, Green Book is a patently harmless and inconsequential film.
When black filmmakers like Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) in recent years and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) and Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) this past year tackle these subjects, they are often more bold, confrontational, and honest about their subjects. None of these films are exceptionally violent or lacking in softer tones, but they all look at racism as endemic rather than superficial.
Green Book never approaches this frank exploration of racism because it’s too caught up in its own. Tony’s opinions about people of color, Germans, Jews, and more are front-and-center throughout the film and when he’s trying to convince Dr. Shirley that he’s missing out on the sheer joys of what he thinks black people should enjoy (like fried chicken), it comes off as tone deaf and oblivious. The one time Tony does something suitably modern is when he rescues Dr. Shirley after an illegal romantic dalliance.
This is a movie that feels like it was made primarily by white filmmakers to preach to white audiences about the evils of racism and the power of growth. That it never emerges from its antiquated post-racial mindset with anything close to an epiphany, the whole affair comes off as self-serving and crass rather than uplifting. It feels naive, out of touch, and unaware.
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are fine in their roles, but the story surrounding them doesn’t give them anything genuinely juicy to sink their teeth into. These are performances that are adequate to the film’s needs, but little more. Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga superficially sticking to Italian stereotypes and speech patterns that might have been accurate, but feel superficial. It’s a performance that screams itself at the audience without feeling the least bit real or forthright.
Ali does significantly better as Dr. Shirley, giving him a stoic, haughty appearance as the script demands, but fusing his natural charm and honesty into the role, making it something of a departure for the film. It is still surface-deep at times, but the overall result is more convincing than Mortensen’s performance or those of almost anyone else in the cast. The possible exception is Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife. While she doesn’t have entirely enough to do, she makes the most of her brief scenes and comes out of the film the most sincere.
Nick Vallelonga, whose father is the central figure of this film, co-wrote a screenplay like it’s an essay for his High School history class. It’s seldom critical and when it is, it’s lightly so. There’s canned defiance, predictable resolutions, and a general feeling that there was nothing genuinely necessary about this particular story being told. Green Book is full of tempered sound and tepid fury, signifying nothing.
April 10, 2019