6 February 2019

Green Book review

With just a few minor tweaks, it's entirely conceivable to me that Green Book could've played as a near pitch perfect satire of your average piece of prestige picture Oscar bait. I mean, look at the damn thing - it's not just a period piece, but an allegedly true story period piece that "tackles" (and I use that word in the lightest way possible) historical prejudices, while always managing to adhere to a tone that subtly and not so subtly insists those days are long behind us, that the societal problems on display in the film aren't something to be worried about now. Add to that an incredibly grounded, down to earth, emotionally driven performance from Mahershala Ali and one hilariously over-the-top, larger than life, hugely stereotypical performance from Viggo Mortensen, and it's easy to see a world in which Green Book could've been to Oscar bait what Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was to the musical biopic.

Sadly, that's not the case. Green Book may contain moments of comedy (both on purpose and entirely by accident), but as far as intent goes we're a long way away from anything that could be considered even slightly subversive. Instead, it's the kind of film your elderly grandparents would love, showing how easily racism can be fixed when "one of the good blacks" is willing to give the white man a chance, a white man who despite being shown early on to be overtly racist is a nice enough, open-minded guy deep down. Sure, some cops back then were racist, but hey, #NotAllCops, and the good ones will help you get your car out of the snow with a smile on their faces. Sure, some might've been corrupt too - but hey, Green Book makes sure to point out that some of those cops are black. At almost every turn, Green Book tries to find a way to make the injustices featured throughout seem all that more palatable, and the result is a film that really had nothing interesting or original to say on the topics that it's supposedly - but isn't actually - about.

The plot is fairly simple - set in the 1960's, we follow New York bouncer Frank Vallelonga (known as Tony Lip to his friends) as he is hired by famed black musician Dr. Don Shirley to serve as a driver/bodyguard on an 8 week tour of the deep South. Naturally then, it's an odd couple/road trip movie, with the two main characters initially bouncing off one another before bonding over the course of the movie. But what's fascinating about Green Book - and not necessarily fascinating in a good way - is the way in which these two characters change over the course of the movie.

Or more importantly, the way that one of them kind of doesn't. You see, Green Book is book-ended by scenes that imply Tony Lip (and somehow his family, possibly via telepathy) has grown as a person during his time with Dr. Shirley, but the movie in between those scenes in no way challenges Tony's worldview or the way he acts - in fact, it validates and agrees with him almost unanimously, possibly because it was written by Tony's real life son, Nick Vallelonga, who naturally wouldn't want to portray his father in a bad light. Instead, it is Dr. Shirley's worldview that is challenged throughout, often on the receiving end of what can only be described as Tony's "white working class wisdom". Over the course of the movie, we see Dr. Shirley go from someone who doesn't respect or appreciate Tony to someone who does - which means that Green Book is, at a fundamental level, a film about a black man learning not to judge a white guy based on appearances.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway - that's a fucking insane thing for a film set in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in the Jim Crow South to do, especially when Dr. Shirley's real life family dispute many of the claims made by Green Book, right down to the idea that Tony and Dr. Shirley were ever even friends. This is a film that seems to broadly agree with Tony when he says that he's blacker than Dr. Shirley, who at this point in the movie has been harassed and assaulted multiple times for being black, a film in which Tony helps Dr. Shirley get back in touch with his blackness by forcing him to eat fried chicken. In the years to come, we're going to look back at Green Book and laugh about the fact that it was ever considered a serious movie, let alone an awards contender - it's simply an incredibly tone deaf and stupid movie, offering a childish and mollycoddled take on a topic that deserves a far more intelligent and confrontational examination than Green Book is willing (or able, I suspect) to offer.

And yet I'd be lying if I tried to claim that Green Book wasn't at the very least watchable, reasonably well put together on a technical level with nice cinematography and good editing even while it sticks its foot so far into its mouth that it can taste its own kneecaps. Mortensen's Frank Vallelonga is such a caricature of an Italian-American that he may as well end every sentence with "bada bing bada boom, spaghetti", but it's also exactly what this movie needs, a performance big enough and bizarre enough to keep you engaged where a more subtle performance simply wouldn't. Is it a good performance, of a well-written character? Fuck no. But it works within the context that Green Book presents it, much like the rest of the movie tapping into well-worn tropes to produce something so familiar that it can't help but end up feeling... well, comforting, and safe, and broadly inoffensive - as long as it's playing to "the right kind of audience", which just so happens to be the same demographic as the majority of Academy Award voters.

So what is Green Book, when everything is taken into account and all is said and done? Little more than a shallow and superficial example of why the recognisable hallmarks of a prestige picture don't mean much at all if they aren't imprinted on something with actual merit, which really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise being as it's directed by one of the guys behind the excruciating Movie 43. With another writer and a different director, maybe Green Book could've been a genuinely good, enlightening movie. But as it stands, it's little more than a film that's only vaguely entertaining at its very best, deeply unchallenging and staggeringly misguided throughout - and if that's what we're holding up as one of the best movies of 2018, then something has gone very wrong indeed.

2 stars

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