A lot of critics are calling this road movie about a black musician touring the South in 1962 with a white driver the most embarrassing Best Picture Oscar winner since Crash. Such critics take the Academy Awards too seriously, and for what it’s worth, Green Book has a certain savvy charm that has nothing to do with its racial friendship theme. If anything, Mahershala Ali’s gay, classically trained pianist and Viggo Mortensen’s almost-made-guy club bouncer start out as cartoons and mostly remain that way, even as they both warm to each other’s pecadillos over the course of their journey. It’s not likely that anyone will take it at face value, though, it’s supposed to be based on a true story.
It’s this conceit that makes Green Book a bit of a grind. Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), we know now according to his family, did not develop the kind of palsy-walsy relationship with Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) that the movie claims and which is structured almost like a classic romantic comedy. Knowing this bit of intelligence makes the story that much more intolerable, because that’s the whole point of the conflict. Director Peter Farrelly, known more for his off-color humor, is rather cavalier about this conflict, and if he had made it a straightforward comedy the movie might have had less pushback because comedies are taken less seriously by default. He knows we know about the Jim Crow South and trusts our basic decency to give him a pass for exaggerating the Shirley-Tony relationship. The title refers to a travel guide for black motorists that indicate where they can stay and eat without having to suffer white people’s scorn over their presence in the lower half of the country. Tony is hired to not only drive Dr. Shirley, but also act as his bodyguard, a task he has to carry out more than once. If Tony is a lunk who overcomes his native racism while carrying out his work, Dr. Shirley is a stuffy epicure who learns a little tolerance himself for the plight of dumb working stiffs like Tony. In fact, the movie’s most egregious calculation is making Tony more appealing than Dr. Shirley in the beginning, a point that clearly shows who the target audience is, and it sure ain’t Spike Lee.
The episodes that prove the movie’s opinion of itself are rote and predictable—Dr. Shirley draws good-sized audiences but can’t eat in the white person’s sections of the venues he plays. His patrons are polite but doctrinnaire about their exclusionary culture, and at first Tony, as a Northerner, is more amused than concerned, so it’s Farrelly’s and Mortensen’s job to flip his reaction. When Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality is addressed, however, you get the feeling Farrelly can’t get out of the scene soon enough. Even the movie seems to be conflicted over its moral choices.
And whatever you want to say about Mortensen’s and Ali’s own choices, they are very entertaining and deserve credit for making the movie not only watchable but enjoyable. It’s not a bad movie at all, just terribly misdirected in terms of what its makers are trying to prove.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).
Green Book home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC