Treating us to some old-school filmmaking, Green Book deftly avoids any potential bumpiness inherent in its subject matter, delivering a warm, if simplistic, friendship dramedy.
In the ever-complicating web of race relations in America today, perhaps the last thing we thought needed adding to the conversation was another simple, feel-good narrative in the vein of Remember the Titans or Driving Miss Daisy. It’s true, Green Book probably isn’t the best commentary on racial prejudice and how we can transcend it. It doesn’t dig too deeply into the damaging effects of racial injustice beyond the equivalent of a 5th grader’s research paper, but, as a good-hearted story with a well-matched pair of leads, it is enjoyable to watch. Selma it is not, nor is it trying to be, and, though some may disagree, I think that’s perfectly fine.
Allow me to take the side of popcorn theatergoers for a moment, those notorious masses that demand nothing but a good time—some good old-fashioned escapism and entertainment from their cinematic experience. In an era when bombastic noise and mind-boggling visuals dominate the screen, each explosion trying to outdo the last to capture audience attention, mainstream film has become disappointingly flat. So, for Green Book, filmed and told in a classic sort of way and clearly aimed at the drivers of the slushie/popcorn/candy economy, it’s a welcome change, and a more substantive one at that. It’s a delivery mechanism of an important message wrapped in a sweet-tinged bow for a group that won’t necessarily be seeking out the arthouse theater 20 miles away to watch the more off-putting, downer of a film painstakingly laying out the tribulations of racial injustice in raw and visceral images. Green Book is like pizza, it tastes great and you can stomach some vegetables thrown on because the cheese and sausage obscure the flavor. Now tell me, who but only the most health-conscious would pick eating, say, brussels sprouts over pizza? If you’re wondering why I’ve spent nearly two paragraphs and a questionably successful food metaphor arguing the merits of a feel-good movie about race, it’s because I worry that many will dismiss it outright for just that reason. And, while it does have some problems, I do think it’s a good film worth watching.
With that out of the way, let’s get into it. Green Book follows its two leads, Tony “Lip” Vallenlonga (Viggo Mortensen, turning in a fantastic performance against type), a working-class New York bouncer with accent and attitude, and Dr. Don Shirley (played with stoic expression by Mahershala Ali), an African American classically trained concert pianist, as they tour through the deep South on a concert tour. Tony is hired to be Dr. Shirley’s driver, valet, and all-around bodyguard from the understandable dangers that will befall them on their trip. Along the way, understanding and friendship blossom between the two men. Tony is the quintessential Italian. He's a motormouth, he’s loud, he’s crass, he’s violent, he’s a little bit racist, and he’s always eating. Dr. Shirley, presented as the foil, is comparatively aloof, distant, and dignified in all matters to a fault. This is where the film wrings the most comedy from its two leads, who have a solid onscreen chemistry. The humor plays the “smart guy educates dumb guy” chord consistently throughout the film, which, surprisingly, doesn’t really get tired. The film, written in part by Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s son, avoids ridiculing Tony for his lack of knowledge, instead presenting him, from what I assume was first-hand knowledge, as a generally endearing, good-hearted oaf.
Unfortunately, it is in the characterization and development of its protagonists that the film does hit some potholes on its journey. The film is entirely from Tony Lip’s perspective, beginning to end. He’s in nearly every scene, and he undergoes the biggest change from start to finish. He’s a fleshed out, well-realized character. Dr. Shirley isn’t given the same treatment. Aside from the problematic image of having a movie about race relations being entirely from a white guy’s perspective, it’s just poor writing. If you have a film about two characters, you should have ample time to develop them both with depth and realness. Dr. Shirley is sometimes so distant, so alien, that he seems like he’s from another planet (the fried chicken scene comes to mind). This could be because there are very few details about the personal life of the real Don Shirley, but from what I understand, the film took considerable liberties with the true story, so, could it not have taken some liberties to flesh the character out as well? Without this, he swings dangerously close to caricature in some scenes, and you’re left wondering whether a real person would truly act this way.
Despite having a clear delineation between who is the lead protagonist and who is supporting, the film does do a good job of avoiding the white savior trope. Though Tony does pull Dr. Shirley out of a share of bad situations, Dr. Shirley isn't completely stripped of his agency. He’s given opportunities in the script to return the favor to Tony, and, in fact, one of the last scenes in the film shows him taking control of his fate and preserving his dignity after suffering insult compounded by insult from the people who, congregated to see him perform, supposedly respect him. In this way, the film smooths over what could have been a much bigger problem in having solely Tony’s perspective be the vehicle for the film’s ideas.
Ultimately, Green Book brings it home with a sweet, feel-good ending, that in a lesser quality, less entertaining film would have had me rolling my eyes. But, thanks to the strong performances from its leads, a slew of genuinely funny moments, and an unabashed and genuine warmness, Green Book overcomes its faults to deliver a classic moviegoing experience that you can’t help but enjoy.