A role reversed ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ with a black passenger and a white driver, the attempts at commentary of ‘Green Book’ feel artificial and insincere.
Around the time that Viggo Mortensen ate his third plate of spaghetti and meatballs, I decided that Green Book was less a movie and more a discarded “Very Special Episode” of The Sopranos. From the overweight Italian as our protagonist (Mortensen packed on the real pounds but doesn’t quite nail the voice) to the gangster-adjacent plotline to the fact that the real Tony Lip—Mortensen’s character—was literally in The Sopranos, it has all the makings of a forgotten episode of a mobster series, almost too biteless for its own good.
The film opens in New York in 1962, following recently out-of-work heavy Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, doing whatever he can to make money without resorting to working with the local mob. He applies to drive around musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African American pianist who is going to go on a tour of the deep south. After some reluctance, Tony takes the job and begins to travel across the country with Don, the two bond in their attempts to survive racism, the Jim Crow south, and each other. Using the titular Green Book (a guide to black-friendly places in the south which is described three times in as many minutes) the two take on the south one concert piano at a time.
If that premise sounds a bit too basic for a 2018 movie dealing with race, you would be almost too correct. Writer-director Peter Farrelly, best known for making comedies like There’s Something About Mary or Dumb & Dumber, pats himself on the back a bit too much for making a movie about such heavy subject matter. But the film mixes its messages a bit too often to stand up to much scrutiny. For one, the movie calls out Tony’s own slight racism at the beginning of the movie (he throws out two glasses that had been used by black plumbers in his home) before making the argument about how that isn’t as bad as what “real” racism is. In the process, the movie lets Tony off the hook for his own prejudices, even though he works past them. Similarly, Tony uses violence to solve a number of problems before Doc tells him that violence isn’t the answer, a message Tony ignores in a moment that saves his and Don’s life towards the end of the movie.
After a half hour of set-up that focuses exclusively on Tony (including an inexplicable hot dog eating contest that feels like Peter Farrelly’s worst impulses on display), he and Don finally hit the road, but not before showing Don’s own problems with black people, including how out of touch he is with 1960s African American culture. Tony instead takes on the responsibility of showing Don some of the culture that he has missed, which results in a handful of scenes where Tony introduces Don to fried chicken and modern music. Farrelly presents these scenes as a meeting of high class and low class, but it comes off instead one of the sometimes problematic racial dynamics that are shown throughout the film.
The supporting characters of the film are fairly paper-thin. Linda Cardellini plays Tony’s wife, and while she shines in the opening and closing of the film, the middle act returns to her rarely, only ever reading letters that Tony had written to her (frequently with Mortensen’s narration playing over instead of Cardellini speaking for herself). Along similar lines, the only black person with any real agency in the film is Don Shirley himself. Small scenes feature other (nameless) black people, but mostly every conversation about race rests on how the northerner Shirley is treated by southern racists. But Don himself doesn’t change much throughout the movie, mostly playing supporting actor to Tony, who has the character arc of “racist” to “less racist” by the end of the film. For all that Mahershala Ali brings to the character, it never allows for Shirley to take the lead away from Tony.
Had Peter Farrelly spent a little bit longer on developing anyone other than Tony or Don, the movie might have been more successful at making a racial commentary, in my opinion. Instead, the movie feels entirely unnecessary, despite the great performance by Ali (in a stark reversal of his Oscar-winning Moonlight character). The movie feels like someone took 90% of the jokes out of a comedy, instead wanting to be an “important” movie. Green Book certainly could have been worse, but it really needed to be better.
Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, comes out on November 21st from Universal Pictures.