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‘Green Book’ (review)

Produced by Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler,
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga

Written by Nick Vallelonga,
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly

Directed by Peter Farrelly
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali,
Linda Cardellini

 

Now that we have moved past the popcorn action movies of the summer, it is time to delve into those high-budget pieces of fall and winter designed to “make us think”, both about the world and who should be eying an Oscar nomination.

Green Book takes us on a concert tour through the 1960s South with blue collar, narrow minded Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) at the wheel and piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as passenger.  Over the course of two hours, we see their relationship grow from transactional to genuine as each man learns about the person on the other side of the seat.

On its well-designed and cinematically flawless face, the film is beautifully shot with rich concert scenes of passionate piano playing, wide views of cruising down the highway through pastoral middle America, and period perfect costuming.

Even the most formulaic story (which this is) can feel enjoyable if given care and thoughtful treatment. With powerhouses like Ali and Mortensen playing off each other in such an intimate setting as the interior of a 1962 Cadillac, it makes the Driving Miss Daisy reverse trope feel like more than it is.

Green Book follows the formula of other quaint “based on a true story” race films like The Help, where an exceptional black person acts as a bay window for a white protagonist, expanding a very limited view of race relations. It also attempts to address snobbery and defend respectability politics as a survival mechanism for Shirley, who is shown as out of touch with popular black culture and believes that in all interactions where skin color is a factor (which is literally all of their interactions) that “Dignity always prevails”; you can always lean on class to open doors closed by race. He also lords this class divide over Tony, and in the beginning delivers some truly withering barbs in his direction that make him a cold genius counterpart to Tony’s unflappable working class Italian outlook. The dynamic is paint-by-numbers, but both are so enjoyable to watch that it is easy to be drawn in.

Depending on gentility and talent may have worked up North, but the South is an entirely different beast for both men when interacting with either race. White Southerners are happy to show up for concerts, but less inclined to let Shirley drink in peace. Tony always comes to his rescue with increasing degrees of indignation tied to how blatantly the always composed Shirley was disrespected. The lopsided nature of the growth is not due to Shirley’s steadfastness in his ways, but in the fact that Tony is further behind in his views and therefore given more to work with.

It’s no surprise that a movie which lists one of the character’s sons as a script co-writer (Nick Vallelonga) gives a kinder, gentler look at personal flaws. But when one of those shortcomings is casual racism, it has the ability to leave a sour taste in a sweet Thanksgiving-release holiday movie meant to be consumed as mindlessly as your third slice of pumpkin pie.

One of the only scenes where Tony’s true beliefs are on display occurs in the beginning when, after watching two black handymen drink lemonade offered by his wife, he promptly moves the glasses from the sink to the trash. To transition from this to being the willing chauffeur of an uppity black man in less than 20 minutes is suspiciously quick. Knowing the actions are grounded in a real life tale (which was blessed by both men before they passed) will hopefully help more skeptical audiences enjoy this flawed movie at least at a surface level.

Green Book, with all its feel-good nature and telegraphed moments, is the true story of a strictly-business road trip that became a genuine lifelong friendship after many weeks of traveling together and being forced to confront the brutal realities of Southern racism, which was something Tony heard about but had never seen or experienced in his small, narrow world. People who expend the immense emotional labor involved in educating others on prejudice know that one of the best (though most exhausting) ways to accomplish this is individual interactions.

The focus is not on the life of Don Shirley, who actually requires the Green Book, but on the education of Tony, who never knew it was necessary. The genre did not really need yet another demure movie of a white person’s journey of learning about racism, but that’s what the bromance at the core of Green Book is. At least this trip is a smooth, pleasant, scenic one.

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