Green Book feels like it’s from, and for, another time.
The 80’s and 90’s had plenty of films that litigated issues of race and ethnicity, often to great critical success: Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, The Color of Friendship for the kids. They follow a similar structure: two people of different races (one is usually white) find through their shared experiences that they aren’t as different as society dictated they were, and cast aside their biases and prejudices in the hopes that the world around them will do the same. These films meant well to varying degrees, but handled their racial politics with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, offering resolutions that don’t hold up well today.
Which makes Green Book somewhat strange viewing. The buddy dramedy follows the true story of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a gifted black pianist embarking on a tour of the Deep South, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), his white Italian chauffeur. The men are polar opposites: Don is regal and refined in his penthouse atop of Carnegie Hall; Tony is crude and morally ambiguous, crowded by his large family in a Bronx apartment. Tony’s temperament is exactly what Don is looking for, and hires him for an eight-week trek through the treacherous landscapes below the Mason-Dixon line. Naturally, they clash in values, opinions and attitudes, but as they confront increasingly hostile acts of racism, the gulf between them shrinks and they help each other; Don helps Tony articulate his love for his wife through letters, and Tony gives Don the companionship he is quietly yearning for.
Green Book recalls films of yesteryear in its depiction of racial prejudice, done with inelegant, outdated strokes. Our collective understanding of racism has expanded greatly in the last twenty years as more marginalized voices have entered the mainstream. This film acts as though the progress doesn’t exist. Racism, implicit and otherwise, is handled without nuance or subtlety. Micro-aggressions land like gut punches that can evoke triggered responses instead of the revelatory ones the filmmakers are certainly hoping for. More brutal racist acts are visceral, but clichéd. The script explores these confrontations through unrefined missives that feel like after-school special lines instead of genuine conversations. Gallingly, the film is hesitant to push against Tony’s own racist tendencies, attributing growth to his dormant moral compass and working-class manhood instead of making Tony do the work. Don’s legitimate struggles with individual and collective blackness are posed as issues that Tony of all people can help resolve, instead of compelling internalized drama. It’s one of several problematic presumptions throughout, the worst being that Tony is somehow “blacker” than Don because he grew up in the Bronx, loves fried chicken and likes black musicians. It isn’t satisfyingly challenged, and the closest we get to a resolution veers dangerously close to the “white savior” narrative we should’ve long outgrown.
When you dissociate from its disappointing racial politics, Green Book can be enjoyable. For all their differences, Tony and Don make a charming, likable pair, and the film’s best scenes restrict the focus to the two of them irking and gradually enjoying each other. When Tony says something vulgar and Don cracks the slightest of smiles while admonishing him, it’s a genuine, funny moment. Don’s crippling isolation seeps out when he asks Tony to join him on the road full-time, and you ache for him. Here, the heart-on-your-sleeve earnestness works, and director Peter Farrelly keeps things moving at a nice pace before the moments can wear thin. His comfort and control of the lighter moments of the film is evident, and he mostly succeeds at balancing the emotional character work to build a solid, feel-good mood.
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali do excellent work carrying that mood throughout and finding nuanced character beats when there aren’t any on the page. As the gruff Tony, Mortensen pushes against tough-guy Italian stereotypes through gradual shifts in his eyes that are increasingly disturbed by the racism he sees, even when he advocates for the status quo. Ali is a magnificent revelation as Don, conveying regality and grace with such presence that it is overwhelming. He is shattering when he lets the pretense slip just enough to reveal the broken man underneath, communicating his loneliness through the subtlest shifts of expression. Of the two stars, Ali had the more difficult job with expanding upon the material, and he handles the extra load marvelously. It’s work that will most likely net him a second Oscar in February. Together, Mortensen and Ali’s wonderful, lived-in chemistry emanates through the screen.
Green Book would probably be a compelling, maybe even groundbreaking, film were it released twenty years ago. It is a feel-good, charming comedy-drama that finds warmth in unspeakable hostility. However, we are in 2019, and even though those traits still apply, the film’s deficiencies in discussing racism are glaring. Green Book’s earnest emotionality may be admirable in these fractured time, but its shallow, unsophisticated exploration of race just doesn’t work, not anymore.