‘Green Book’ review: Crowd-pleasing but quaint take on racism
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen's characters come from two different social worlds, but the common ground they find in "Green Book" can speak to us all. USA TODAY
An Italian bouncer and a black pianist form a friendship on a road trip through the South in the 1960s. Pleasing, if inappropriately quaint.
The odd-couple road trip is a formula old as film. There’s something pleasing and easy about pitting two opposing personalities against one another in the confines of a tin can and watching the fireworks fly.
Pleasing, too, is “Green Book,” a cloying drama about an unlikely 1960s mixed-race bromance between an Italian bouncer and a black pianist. But pleasing has its limits when it comes to thoughtful meditations on historical racism, as does director Peter Farrelly (of the Farrelly brothers and “Dumb and Dumber” fame).
Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a working-class mook, a bouncer left jobless when his nightclub closes for renovations. He’s your average blue-collar family man, if more resourceful than most, trying to put food on the table and make a nice home for his kids and wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini).
He’s also a racist. When he comes home to find a couple of black men working on a home repair, he throws the glasses they were drinking from in the trash; washing them wouldn’t be enough. His disgust is palpable.
Such a man would seem an unlikely road companion for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a prodigious talent and classical pianist who lives above Carnegie Hall and is undeniably, inescapably black. But Tony’s brand of hotheaded muscle is what Don needs to survive a road trip through the South, where his record label is sending him on tour. He’ll also need “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for traveling while black in the south – and surviving.
To call them an odd couple is putting it lightly. Tony is a chain-smoking chatterbox, profane and uncouth, and he eats like he’s got a hole in his stomach. Don is refined and taciturn, a condescending taskmaster fluent in multiple languages. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to figure out that a friendship between the two is going to blossom in the shadow of institutional racism.
“Green Book” is a throwback to bygone eras of race in filmmaking. It recalls movies like “Driving Miss Daisy” or “A Patch of Blue,” cloying stories about white folks who need their hand held by a kindly black person to come through the other side of racism (2011’s “The Help” also followed this playbook). Tony’s journey is a facile one that requires far too little soul searching, given how repulsed he is by black people at the movie’s start. All it takes is a little money and some bonding over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for him to start to soften. Enlightenment comes cheap.
It would be more insulting if Ali and Mortensen weren’t milking the formula for all it’s worth, gifting the film unearned grace with their magnetism.
Ali turns Don into a complex figure, more than just the black half of a buddy film. He exists in a liminal space, not black enough or man enough to belong to any community, to feel a sense of home even among those who should be his own.
Mortensen, meanwhile, is too charismatic a chump to truly rankle, even when the brain knows better. His unapologetic confidence of self, at first a liability, ends up his greatest asset – and his greatest gift to Don.
Their characters also allow for a slightly more complicated power dynamic than usual. In the South, Tony is far higher on the social spectrum than Don who, for all his refinement and skill, barely qualifies as a person under the region’s Jim Crow laws. But in the North, Don dominates, sitting on a literal golden throne in his apartment above Carnegie Hall, his culture and education elevating him to New York City’s upper echelons.
“Green Book” is not unthoughtful in its crowd-pleasing. It’s just that such crowd-pleasing feels inappropriately quaint for 2018.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter.com/BabsVan.
- In 'Widows,' Viola Davis pulls off an un-'Ocean's'-like heist
- 'Buster Scruggs:' Coen brothers' take on tall tales
- 'Boy Erased' compassionate drama about conversion therapy
- 'Girl in the Spider's Web:' Where's Rooney Mara when you need her?
‘Green Book,’ 3 stars
Director: Peter Farrelly.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★