Directed by Peter Farrelly
Written by Nick Vallelongia & Brian Hayes Curry, & Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, and Linda Cardellini
Running time: 130 minutes
I know the above rating seems harsh, and to be honest, if the film had not won Best Picture at the Oscars in February, my rating would be higher but probably only by a half-star. Maybe I’m being hard on it, but I hated this movie for so many reasons. First, it’s racist. I know it’s supposed to be about a man who overcomes his prejudices and befriends a black man, and that’s basically what the overarching plot is, but how they get there is the big problem (which will be discussed at length later…and possibly in a separate piece). Second, it’s so formulaic you know the entire 130-minute film by heart after seeing the trailer, because you’ve seen this movie a thousand times. Third, Viggo Mortensen’s Goodfellas audition gets very old, very quickly. And there are more.
The plot is, simply, that Tony Lip (Mortenson) is an Italian American bouncer and sometimes mob enforcer who gets contracted to drive black classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Ali) while he tours the American South in the early 1960s, during Jim Crow and segregation. The Green Book of the title is Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist’s Green Book that outlines safe businesses and routs in the Jim Crow south for black travelers, which is briefly mentioned and occasionally referenced during the film. Throughout this journey, Tony is forced to accept Dr. Shirley as a person, and Dr. Shirley is forced to put up with him until he does. This tour bonds the two, and they are lifelong friends after this. Oh, yeah, and Dr. Shirley is also gay, something that is just thrown in because it made the character….what?....more of a victim? Sure, Shirley may have been gay in real life, but it could be illustrated better than the reveal scene (involving Shirley getting arrested for having sex with a man in an indoor swimming pool). Tony, to his credit, states that he’s seen all kinds and Shirley’s sexual orientation doesn’t bother him. But his skin color…that’s still a problem.
Sounds pleasant enough, right? And it is a very nice film on the surface, it’s just when you crack the thin, yet well-produced, sheen that it starts to fall apart. The film feels like it was made for a mid-1960s audience instead of just being set then. All the sensibilities of the film are outdated and many of the interactions that eventually get Tony to feel okay about Shirley (but no other black person) never attain the emotional heights that director/co-writer Peter Farrelly wants them to. The artificial moments of the script are not unexpected because the film tells you straight out that it isn’t going to be inventive (which is why the Best Original Screenplay win was totally unexpected) to any degree and can therefore almost be forgiven. The trouble is when they tried to be clever. There is one scene in the car that is possibly the most racist thing in the movie and indeed in just about any movie since the stereotypes in Crash (2005). In this scene, Tony teaches Shirley how to eat fried chicken and his appalled that he doesn’t already know all about it. This seems good natured and all, but it proceeds from the stereotype of ‘all black people love fried chicken’ and its racist connotations. The only way that scene could have been more racist is if it was watermelon instead of fried chicken. The scene transitions into Tony telling Shirley who the black musicians on the radio then proceeds to tell Dr. Shirley that he’s ‘blacker’ because he knows how to eat fried chicken and listens to black artists. This is horrible because the writers are counting on the audience to be with Tony here and buy into the stereotype. The scene only works if the audience members harbor their own racism.
That is why the movie was made to make white people feel better about themselves. It asks them…us (I suppose that I have to admit that I am in the target audience as I am not a person of color) to tap into their own misconceptions of Black Americans, and instead of repudiating said misconceptions, it reinforces them for unearned emotional impact, cheap laughs and disingenuous feel-good moments.
This shortcutting should come as no surprise when you realize that Peter Farrelly is one of the Farrelly Brothers writing and directing duo that has given us some of the most tasteless and least funny films since the early-to-mid ‘90s. The tact is that they do minimal set-up, easy go-tos like dumb or clueless characters, sitcom-style easily resolvable situations that only require one person to listen for a minute, which of course they don’t so things can escalate to wackiness and hilarity. In theory. Really, their films are a mish-mash of nonsense that they pass off as comedy. Farrelly uses the same tricks here, but because he’s dealing in racial drama, short set-ups just add up to racism.
And then there are the performances. Ali is great as always, though it’s a shame he won his second Oscar for this movie. Mortensen sounds like he’s having fun pretending to be on The Sopranos or in Goodfellas, but he never gets Tony to feel like a real person. He’s just a cliché machine that spits out things you’d expect the character to, yet never becomes more than that. Ali, at least gets to give Dr. Shirley some emotion. Tony only amounts to a grinning tough guy racist.
While there are obvious problems with the film, as illustrated above, the ending is almost the most troublesome. Tony invites Dr. Shirley into his home and Tony’s whole family of racists (except his wife, played by Cardellini) and pretty much says “Hey, this guy’s okay” and everyone appears to accept him because Tony says he’s okay. What we’re supposed to feel is that Tony overcame his racism and with the introduction of Dr. Shirley to his family, cured his whole family’s racism too. What it shows is Tony has learned to accept this one black person, and as soon as he leaves, Tony’s family is going to grill him on why he brought an N-word to Thanksgiving dinner. There is never any indication that Tony’s attitudes have changed toward black people and he still might throw away water glasses that black maintenance specialists drank from (which is something he does very early in the movie).
Green Book is essentially a film that celebrates how one white guy met his only black friend, who, according to the Shirley family, never considered Tony more than a chauffeur and that he was only friendly with Tony because he was paying him to be his driver and bodyguard. There is no subtilty in the film at all, everything is out in the open and spelled out for the audience to keep people focused on the emotions they are telling you to feel instead of thinking about the film and realizing that it’s garbage.