A bigoted bodyguard accompanies a black pianist on a concert tour of the Jim Crow South.
Directed by Peter Farelly
Starring Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali
Review by Jon Kissel
The family of aforementioned pianist Don Shirley would say absolutely not. Vallelonga insists that Lip and Shirley told him the facts of their time together, but both are dead so we only have the word of someone who’s pretty sure he saw Muslims celebrating on rooftops on 9/11. Leaving aside the Shirley family’s vehement disapproval, which could be legitimate or borne out of many unknown and less-flattering reasons, Green Book is not a documentary and some creative license must be allowed.
Mattering more than the truth of the various scenes is the basic premise, which fatally flaws Green Book from the second Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is introduced onscreen. Lip, as played by Viggo Mortenson, is shown to be a nightclub goon, and one who’ll put the hostess’ job and perhaps safety on the line so he can get in good with the local mob boss. During time off from the club, Lip must consider whether or not to work for said boss, as all Italian Americans apparently must, or take a driving job for Shirley. That Green Book could look at the naked facts of this arrangement, in which a genius black man in mid-century America freely decides to leave his Carnegie Hall penthouse and play in the segregated South, and chose to view it through the eyes of his bigoted, gluttonous, pizza-folding, mediocre driver is a fundamental misjudgment of the story that is in its lap. Shirley’s safety and credibility is at stake in pursuit of a noble goal, while Lip risks the pride of not taking a loan from a friend to bridge a brief period of unemployment.
If Green Book misjudges who it should be primarily about, it proceeds to whiff on its determination of how much to flatter its audience. Set in 1962, the film strongly suggests that the staunchly racist south is merely a series of bad apples. The stereotypical sheriff who throws our duo in jail will one day be replaced by his gentler deputy and everything will be right. Green Book acknowledges how stupid personal racism is, such that wealthy blue-bloods will applaud in awe at Shirley’s talents but won’t share a bathroom with him, but it pretends that that’s all it is. The film plays a late stop by a cop as menacing until the viewer realizes that they’ve reached the integrated utopia of the north and are getting close to home, where they can probably see nearby Newark, a city that certainly won’t explode in racial violence in five years time. It’s little wonder that a certain demographic that loves being flattered i.e. boomers ate Green Book up. In their view, LBJ passed some legislation and all the racists, located purely in the south, slunk away with their tails between their legs, forgetting all the northern ghettos and resistance to busing and red-lines and myriad other factors that would make progress as minimal as possible.
The localizing of racism in the south is particularly galling based on how virulently racist Lip is depicted as being before he and Shirley leave on their quest. Forget the South, there are bars in Lip’s neighborhood that wouldn’t serve Shirley. Despite living his whole life in an insular community, it takes Lip only a few months before he’s done a complete 180 from throwing away two perfectly good glasses that black repairmen drank out of to inviting Shirley into his home for Christmas. This is symptomatic of the choice to foreground Lip at Shirley’s expense, and therefore Lip has to have the primary arc, but I never bought his transformation. Some of that is how despicable he is at the beginning and he just can’t make up the distance, and the rest is the hoary trope of a white person needing either a magical or a generationally gifted black man to get him or her through their bigotry. If only that southern sheriff could just spend some time with one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, then he’d change his ways.
Despite Lip’s prejudice, Green Book goes on to suggest that he’s a better black man than Shirley thanks to shared class interactions. The average black man is shown to have nothing in common with the rarified Shirley. Lip, on the other hand, likes fried chicken and knows how to shoot dice. Green Book’s totally fine with stereotypes as long as Lip can needle Shirley with his refusal to adhere to them. What’s the problem, since he’s Italian and has a big family and likes to eat? The film then gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Shirley daintily eating a chicken leg, but only before Lip has to show him how to hold it. It’s one thing for Shirley to just not like fried chicken. It’s another for him to have no idea what to do with a piece of it. The man came from Jamaican immigrants who settled in Florida, he’s seen a chicken leg before.
Mortenson and Ali do what they can with their roles. As Lip, Mortenson is physically committed, packing on pounds and stuffing various meat products into his maw. The accent’s a little much, but whaddya gon do. Ali is the picture of refinement and grace, carrying his Shirley with enough gravitas to get a slob like Lip to do what he’s told. There’s a better and more compelling facet to their relationship that the film introduces but never commits to, one that would’ve asked more of Mortenson and who has long demonstrated that he has the talents to deliver. It’s mentioned that Italians have only been recently integrated into white society. Lip has undoubtedly run into discrimination at some point in his life, but he’s turned into a discriminator nonetheless. That cycle is one worth examining, as the pulling up of the lifeboats after one is safely aboard is a recurring trap that people continuously fall into. Vallelonga isn’t afraid to show his dad in a negative light. I don’t understand why he didn’t dig deeper into his psyche beyond building to a big cathartic Christmas hug at the end.
Green Book would be a pleasant enough film if not for all its clumsiness around the broader, central conflict of a black man navigating the south with only the titular motor guide and his voracious driver to get him through. I enjoyed Lip’s home life and his relationship with wife Dolores (the underrated Linda Cardellini). I liked that, while it whiffed on Lip’s racism, the film saw that his shortcoming is a lack of imagination and a complacency in tiny bubble. If Green Book has to be about Lip, in contrast to a genius like Shirley, then tone down his racism to average 60’s levels and have his arc be about waking up to a world full of beauty and art. Farrelly doesn’t have the chops to communicate that sensation, and Vallelonga doesn’t have the foresight to put it in his script. Green Book wasn’t the worst film nominated for Best Picture in 2018, but it’s the worst to win in several years, an especially disappointing development after a string of Oscar respectability. C-