In Green Book, director Peter Farrelly’s Oscar-nominated follow-up to Dumb & Dumber To, Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Vallelonga, a nightclub bouncer whose nickname, “Tony Lip,” derives from his distinction as the “best bullshit artist in The Bronx.” Adapted from a series of interviews with the late Vallelonga, who eventually transitioned to acting and starred, for three seasons, as Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. on The Sopranos, Green Book recounts the two months that Vallelonga spent as the personal chauffeur for Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black concert pianist, during the latter’s 1962 tour across the American South. Much like Adam McKay’s VICE, Green Book sees an established comedy filmmaker pivoting to the “more serious” genre of sociopolitical drama, and though Farrelly’s conventional film couldn’t be further, in terms of style, from McKay’s kitchen sink YouTube essays, the end result of both movies is eerily similar and disappointing. Both Green Book and VICE seek to convey the most basic ethical messages–Don’t Be Racist, Don’t Commit War Crimes–but they do so in such a feeble, contrived, self-congratulatory manner that the objects of their critique emerge at best as unharmed, at worst as indestructible. Whether by accident or design, VICE and Green Book shore up the defenses of the same oppressive systems they attempt to counteract, their overmatched directors slinging just as much unconvincing bullshit as the caricatures on screen. A hundred more capable filmmakers could have helmed these stories–or better yet, told different ones–and the fact that they didn’t says far less about American racism or militarism than it does about the still-very-much oblivious, racist, and war-obsessed industry of Hollywood.
To its credit, Green Book is a competent and coherent film, one that rarely presents itself as any kind of profound or revolutionary comment on general racial relations in the United States, then or now. The movie is almost pitiable in its obviousness; in one remarkable scene, the duo’s car happens to break down right next to a field of black sharecroppers, who regard Dr. Shirley like a crash-landed alien. And though the moments are few and far between, Green Book could even be commended for its handling of American class dynamics, how income and education level are corrosive bonding agents every bit as powerful as race. In a vacuum, faulting a movie for receiving undeserved critical acclaim would be ridiculous, but few movies have ever existed in less of a vacuum than Green Book. Every instant of the film feels focus-grouped to appeal to the same liberal audiences and Academy voters who rewarded Driving Miss Daisy and The Blind Side, the viewers content to gaze toward a forever-receding horizon of racial harmony while the theater burns to the ground around them. The film’s period setting only worsens this calculated pandering, as the defined ethical divisions of the Jim Crow South offer a welcome reprieve from the murkier racial tensions of today, the gentrification, educational privatization, and superficial inclusivity practiced by the kinds of audiences who would likely enjoy a heartfelt piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking like Green Book.
That the film is built around two unabashed archetypes–the reformed racist and the exemplary minority–certainly doesn’t elevate the proceedings, either. The specifics of Tony Lip’s character and family life seem culled from an Automated Italian-American Stereotype Generator, painting the broadest possible portrait of a gavone who loves his meatballs, writes at a fourth-grade level, and ain’t afraid to use his fists when the situation demands it. In an era when most Italian-Americans are handsome, grossly under-appreciated bloggers with multiple advanced degrees, Mortensen’s retrograde performance calls to mind a honey-glazed ham the size of Sicily, his closest dramatic predecessor being Bob Hoskins’s work in Super Mario Bros. As Dr. Shirley, Ali is the best, most nuanced part of Green Book, though he essentially functions as any bourgeoise white protagonist would–every other nameless black character in the film serves to ferry Shirley along his journey of enlightenment, emotional reckoning, and self-acceptance. Meanwhile, the predictable plot reads like a cross between a guided tour and a video game, with the heroes encountering increasingly racist grunts on their plodding way to a confrontation with the final boss, the quintessence of bigotry: a country club in Alabama.
The fatal flaw of Green Book isn’t that its component parts don’t work well in concert. Rather, the movie’s biggest problem is that it works just fine, its themes and visuals and message coming together in ways that are instantly recognizable, shallow, bland and forgettable. Hollywood has been assembly lining films like Green Book since before anyone involved in its production was born, and those films have done next to nothing to meaningfully alter the status quo for everyone that Green Book willfully backgrounds, be they poor African-Americans or working-class immigrants. Even at its ugliest, Green Book‘s racism and violence are anodyne and watered down compared to the most inoffensive scroll through anyone’s social media feed, the contrast between the present and the tritely rendered past so stark as to appear sinister. As Tony Lip explains, the title of Green Book refers to a publicly sourced guidebook for black Americans traveling in the South, a list of the hotels and restaurants where they could safely stay and dine. For certain modern moviegoers, Green Book operates in a similar, much less constructive way, steering them around every potentially fraught or uncomfortable conversation about race, before delivering them right back to where they started, intact but unchanged.
In one of the final scenes in Green Book, after the two men have returned to their separate lives in New York City, Tony Lip scolds one of his relatives for using a racial epithet to refer to Dr. Shirley, inviting silence from everyone else in the room. “Don’t call him that,” Lip says sternly, to which his cousin replies, “Okay.” From there, the conversation carries on without comment, the hypnotic spell of the character’s lifelong racism broken in an instant. If Green Book presents a model for tackling the intractable problem of race in America, this exchange is the prime example, the path to the post-racial utopia no different than the path of least resistance. This is, of course, an attractive fantasy built on a foundation of bullshit, the idea that a simple interaction or magic word could possibly convince someone to forever set aside their hatreds. As recent history has proven, Americans are a people who often cling hardest to their hatreds, and it will take far more than an inspirational story well-told to transform that reality, okay?
Final Strawberry Verdict: 2.75 Strawberries out of 5