Review: ‘The Green Book’ doesn’t leave a mark as an artistic work

by Willem Gerrish | 2/19/19 2:40am

After a two-decade career spent directing lighthearted comedy films with his brother Bobby, Peter Farrelly has struck out on his own to co-write and direct “Green Book,” a comedy-drama about the relationship between notable black pianist Dr. Don Shirley and his driver for a tour of the American South, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. The film is set in the 1960s and based on true events, with Vallelonga’s son Nick helping write the Oscar-nominated script. The film has since also been nominated for awards in lead and supporting actor, film editing and best picture. “Green Book” is a movie that seeks to capitalize on the feel-good nature of its triumphant story: that of a white man driving a black piano player through a deeply segregated America and finding friendship and support along the way. Admittedly, the film succeeds in its efforts to enthrall with this trope of race transcended through humanity, and it makes for a highly enjoyable film that nonetheless feels like a glossy magazine print, airbrushed and edited to cater to generalized enjoyment. Ultimately, “Green Book” takes a heart-warming story and ties it up in a neat little bow, resulting in a film that makes you smile and nothing more — it doesn’t challenge conventions or leave a lasting, meaningful impact. 

First, the pros: “Green Book” is blessed with fantastic performances from Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley. Mortensen plays his part with good-hearted panache, perfectly capturing the jovial-but-tough Italian family man. He’s unserious and goofy, capable of eating 26 hot dogs in an hour to win a fifty-dollar bet, but he can also throw a few punches when necessary, too. Tony speaks in the vernacular and exudes a working-class air, which makes the juxtaposition all the more stark when he meets Shirley, a renowned piano player with impeccable diction who lives in a gorgeous apartment above Carnegie Hall. Ali’s performance is much more subdued than Mortensen’s, in part because his character demands restraint. Shirley is a black man living in a white man’s world, and he has learned that a calm demeanor is his greatest defense against danger. But as the two move south on a concert tour, Shirley’s prim clothing and fine words do little to combat racism and violence, and his placid veneer begins to break down. These moments allow Ali to show the power of his acting, letting struggle and pain burst forth in instants of vulnerability and doubt. 

In its treatment of racism, “Green Book” makes its most fascinating statements around the difficulty of societal definitions and the strife endured by those who do not fit them. Shirley is one of those people, admired by whites for his musicality but shunned for his skin color, yet alienating to blacks for his high-class tastes and mannerisms. To complicate things, Shirley is also gay, muddying his identity and causing him shame and regret. In the movie’s most powerful scene, Shirley screams at Tony “If I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, and I’m not man enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?” Ali delivers this line with remarkable power, indicating the struggle of a man who doesn’t fit a neat definition; he straddles the lines of categorization, and it leaves him lonely and adrift. 

But that’s about the extent of really powerful and fascinating statements in “Green Book,” and it’s a sentiment only touched on briefly and then it’s left behind. The rest of the film treats racism with a lightness that feels highly reductive for the sake of easy watching and enjoyment. Tony comes across as the great white man who is able to look past Shirley’s race, and it feels inexplicably triumphant. In an early scene, two black men are in Tony’s house to fix his floor, and after they drink from his cups, Tony throws the glasses in the trash — a moment that makes him seem as inherently racist as the abhorrent Southerners he is about to encounter. Yet as soon as he meets Shirley and becomes his driver, he seems to forget about racism, save for the lingering remnants of prejudice around what music Shirley listens to and what food he eats. He has no problem pampering Shirley, and he puts himself at risk multiple times to save Shirley from some hairy situations. It’s as if something clicked for Tony and he suddenly forgot all his built-up racism. It makes for a highly sympathetic on-screen character, but one who feels crafted to please the droves of viewers who love to see examples of helpful white people who look past race. 

The best phrase I can use to describe “Green Book” is “fun but forgettable.” There’s lots of viewing pleasure here, from the fantastic banter between Tony and Shirley to a raucous scene of Shirley playing blues in a dingy bar, but it feels like empty enjoyment. The story has been buffed and shined to leave us all feeling happy and sated, as if racism were a thing of the past and was marked by these victories for humanity. But the reality was, and continues to be, much darker and more complex, and this means that “Green Book” fails to make any sort of enduring impact as a work of art. I will be shocked and disappointed if it walks away with the Oscar for best picture on Sunday.