It's well known that the making of a motion picture takes a long time, sometimes even years, to move from initial concept to script to shooting the film and finally wrapping up post-production and moving into distribution and marketing.
Green Book, a perfectly fine and genuinely entertaining film, was made for a nation in the nearly orgasmic throes of a Barack Obama administration. It wasn't that long ago, but in some ways it feels incredibly distant at this point. It was a kinder, gentler time in which race relations were seemingly on the upswing, gay marriage was becoming legal, and society's progressives were feeling safe enough to come out and play.
Of course, as we've learned throughout the world's history, the pendulum always swings back.
It swung hard.
Green Book may not always be the film that we want it to be, maybe even need it to be in this current time in American society, but Green Book is precisely the film that it's meant to be. Green Book is not intended as a deeper expose into American race relations, but rather as a gently meandering journey through the race dynamics between two men, Viggo Mortensen's Tony "Lip" Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali's Dr. Don Shirley.
Green Book's treatment of racism is precious and quaint at best, never going remotely near the stark seriousness of the actual Green Book, an actual "thing" that a good majority of white folks don't know about, that served as a guide for black travelers of the limited establishments where they would be welcome in an America still segregated even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It feels weird, at least at times, that The Green Book was serious business yet in some ways its played for entertainment value in Green Book, which I can't help but think director Peter Farrelly intends as a mismatched buddy flick that's kind of wagging its finger around saying "If Tony and Don can figure this stuff out, so can we."
You may want Green Book to go deeper.
It never does.
You may want Green Book to focus more on the fascinating character of Don Shirley.
It never does.
I mean, seriously. What do you expect? The script was co-written by Vallelonga's real life son Nick. Do you really think the film is going to actually focus on Don?
Not gonna' happen.
Instead, we're gonna' get transformative actor Viggo Mortensen transforming once again. Mortensen reportedly gained 40 pounds to play Tony, the sort of likable goombah type of fellow who is unquestionably racist at the beginning of the film but has seen the error of his way by film's end.
Again, it's light and breezy and matter-of-fact and truly, truly entertaining.
Mortensen's "Lip" reluctantly accepts a two-month gig driving Shirley, a renowned pianist, on a concert tour through the Deep South, an area not exactly known for placing the welcome mat out for blacks. It's a perilous gig even for a guy at least locally famous for being able to either talk or punch his way out of pretty much any situation. Tony's a bullshit artist, the kind of guy who can slam 26 hot dogs at one sitting and who folds his pizza over and devours it like real men ought to do.
The Tony we initially meet is racist, but he's not nearly as racist as everyone else Don Shirley's going to encounter in the Deep South and that makes him practically perfect for the job.
Ali's Don Shirley, on the other hand, is clearly the supporting player here, a man of tremendous, and historically overstated, refinement whose immense talent keeps him from easily identifying with ordinary black folks but whose color keeps him from ever being welcomed into the upper class circles that always seem just a few steps away. Shirley's role isn't given nearly the attention it deserves here, but Ali's performance is truly the soul of a film that couldn't possibly survive without it.
There's no denying that Green Book could have dug deeper into the struggles that Tony and Don inevitably encounter on the road, but nearly every single time that Green Book comes close Farrelly seemingly pulls it back.
The wrong choice? Maybe. Maybe not.
The truth is that Farrelly's number one goal as a filmmaker has always been entertaining the audiences and it's misguided at best to expect this first solo venture, even if it is more dramedy than comedy, to do anything else. Long recognized as one of the most diversity celebrating filmmakers and one of the very few filmmakers who consistently casts actors with disability, Farrelly isn't unaware of racism or sexism or ableism - he simply chooses to entertain us along the way and also knows that doing so means pulling back on the complex life lessons. He simply is wise enough to know that such complexity would never work with his style of filmmaking.
Farrelly is right.
There are scenes that don't work, most notably a fried chicken scene that I'm sure looked good on paper but in the tapestry of this film plays out as overly simplistic and ineffective. However, such scenes are in the minority as Farrelly places the film squarely in the hands of two actors who understand the fine nuances of this story and they bring them to life masterfully.
Green Book is a master class in relational acting.
Green Book is neither the travesty that some well meaning yet misguided critics are proclaiming it to be nor is it anything close to the year's best film. Green Book is a film that rests happily somewhere in the middle, a gentle and entertaining film living squarely in a not so gentle and entertaining world. It's a film that would have played just a little bit better in the Obama years, years when we could sort of pat ourselves on the back in a self-congratulatory way convincing ourselves that electing a black president meant that we'd somehow defeated this whole racism thing.
Then, the pendulum swung back and now we've had to pull our Green Books back out and acknowledge that maybe, no definitely, we still have an awful long way to go.
But hey. If Tony and Don can figure all this stuff out? There's always hope.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic