Lasting change is not a one-and-done affair. No one gives a speech or leads a march that magically solves some complex, deeply-rooted social perception. Racism didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. Sexism didn’t end with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. Homophobia didn’t end with Ellen coming out to Laura Dern in “The Puppy Episode.” Like any relationship we have with social progress, or any relationship in general, we have to keep working at defusing problematic behavior forever. There’s work involved that everyone has to do, often every day. And for folks who have considerable privilege, a person might discover new blind spots and microaggressive tendencies, because that’s what progress is: Constant, exhaustive forward momentum.
So, I’m not exactly a fan of the breathtaking over-simplicity of Green Book. A cartoonish story of a white man learning to befriend a black man, signalling to white people that one need not worry about race, so long as a person is not horribly, glaringly bigoted. “Based on a true friendship,” (except that the two characters were not friends in real life), Green Book is a woefully clumsy film that, other than some thinly-veiled Oscar baiting, is not without good intentions, and certainly not the most offensive treatise and race relationships between whites and blacks. Yet, Peter Farrelly and co. cannot help but double down on the few nuances they stumble onto for a tidy, white fantasy wish fulfillment.
Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a hustler. Sure, he’ll drive garbage trucks, and bounce for the Copacabana, but he’ll also out-eat a guy on a bet for rent money, or steal a hat so he can return the item to the owner for some extra cash. Typically, Tony’s working on behalf of his growing, very Italian family. Except there’s one catch: Tony is a product of the mindlessly racist community in which he was brought up. Early in the film, Tony wakes up, looking for his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and what do we see? Cut to a shot of his wife barely in frame, while two laborers who are black work on his sink. After Dolores offers the two men some lemonade, Tony casually throws the glasses in his garbage can. Why would he be caught drinking out of the same cups as two black folks? But essentially, Tony is a mostly decent guy who does the wrong thing for… understandable reasons? Doesn’t totally track, but that’s the gist.
After the Copa, where Tony has been bouncing, is temporarily shut down, he is offered a gig to drive around Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a tour through the deep south. Dr. Shirley is a widely renowned concert pianist, a prodigy with multiple doctorates, and someone who has worked tirelessly to be respected as a black man. To the film’s credit, the dichotomy between Tony and Dr. Shirley is one of the smarter conceits. Tony can be a gluttonous, brutish, profane grunt, and no one will bat an eye. Dr. Shirley, meanwhile, can be preposterously wealthy, live above Carnegie Hall, be among the most accomplished men of his era, and still feel and be seen as little more than a novelty.
In the film’s first half, while Tony drives Dr. Shirley through the midwestern states, we see a bit of a reversal. Dr. Shirley fits in perfectly with affluent, white socialites, while Tony is completely out of his element. In fact, he feels more at home when he’s playing dice games with the other help and chauffeurs–all of whom are black. When Tony tells Dr. Shirley this, Shirley reminds him that indulging in penny ante gambling is a choice for him; he’s more than welcome to stay inside with other white people. And for a while, this works as a fairly interesting setup. But by the second act, as the two of them venture through the south, any degree of subtlety–which isn’t even that soft-spoken–is pretty much out the window.
Most of the film is Tony and Dr. Shirley sitting in a car, talking, taking the piss out of one another, and slowly bonding. Dr. Shirley is initially put off by Tony’s more boorish qualities. Slowly, he cajoles Tony into not stealing rocks, as well as not littering in the freeway. Dr. Shirley also helps Tony write letters to Dolores–which, by the end, culminates in an unbearably hammy sort of punchline. Meanwhile, Tony introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and Aretha Franklin. Mortensen and Ali have a sort of Odd Couple chemistry that elevates otherwise saccharine material from being completely cornball to almost fun.
But then comes the southern stretch. The bulk of Green Book deals with the weeks that Tony and Dr. Shirley schlep through the very racist south. And though racism has and does exist with greater prevalence in specific regions of the United States, Green Book is incredibly redundant in letting us know just how much an outsider Dr. Shirley is, despite being paid to be there, and at least superficially being welcome. At one point, Dr. Shirley goes to use the bathroom, only to be redirected to an outhouse–because being an outsider is not figurative in this film. So much of Green Book is stitched together, but little is as offensive as the “and then, and then” quality of that middle act, as if Farrelly is checking off boxes of discrimination whenever Tony has his mind blown by each act of small-mindedness that Dr. Shirley must suffer.
And therein lies the greatest sin of Green Book. Though Farrelly and co-writers Brian Hayes Currie and son of Tony Vallelonga/pathological liar Nick Vallelonga want to make a film about looking passed superficial differences and appreciating the heart of any person, but they end up rewarding the audience each time for recognizing as something as being wrong, and going for the most toothless approach. Because while Green Book recognizes concepts like privilege and double standards of race, the film fails to do anything meaningful with those concepts. Instead, Farrelly would rather say, “All anyone needs to do is accept someone for who they are, no matter how different they are.” That’s not a bad message, but to mask this under the veneer of racial tensions in America is, at best, naive, and at worst, frighteningly irresponsible. Because Green Book comes from such a cursory understanding of race, the cure-all is similarly convenient.
Perhaps the flimsy grasp on social politics would be easier to overlook if the film were funnier–how the director of There’s Something About Mary manages to feature one lame, protracted bit after another is beyond me. Or if the look and pace wasn’t so inept–that DP Sean Porter manages to compose and focus a shot is bad enough; that the film drags and drags, and is unpleasant to look at is kind of unforgivable. Green Book is not without charms. Mortensen is genuinely funny and likable as Tony Lip. Mahershala Ali continues to prove he is one of the best actors of his generation, while slumming in work that does not deserve his talents–with Moonlight and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse being the only projects that remotely live up to his abilities. I can feel Green Book begging to be loved and applauded, to give me a warm, unearned hug. Yet, the film cannot escape the shallow degree to which Farrelly tries to explain something he and his fellow filmmakers clearly do not understand.