By: Steve Pulaski
Green Book gets its title from "The Negro Motorist Green Book," a pithy, annual publication by Victor Hugo Green, bound and circulated mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, that aided African-Americans by telling them where they were permitted to eat, lodge, and patronize without fear of racial discrimination. While never explicitly stated in the film, we get the feeling that Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) knows the book all too well. Meanwhile, Bronx-bouncer-turned-Shirley'
That polarity between both men should be the crux of Green Book, but alas, the trio of writers (Nick Vallelonga, son of the real life Frank, Brian Hayes Currie, and director Peter Farrelly) chose to produce a rather hammy, if well-meaning, film about race-relations that would've been more permissible if it were made in the 1990s. There is nothing explicitly wrong with Green Book from a filmmaking standpoint, but any seasoned filmgoer will look at it as just the kind of broadly appealing story that cutely downplays the larger racial conflicts at hand in favor of a sweetly sentimental film your grandmother would adore. Even before seeing it, I jokingly referred to it as "Driving Mr. Daisy," and harshly billed it as a movie for all those people who swear they're not racist because they have a black friend. While my cheeky assumptions were a bit overblown, I still can't dismiss them after seeing the film — and that's my biggest problem.
Set in 1962, the film follows Frank, also known as "Tony Lip," a stereotypical Italian hard-ass who has made a living off of being a fantastic bulls*****r (his words, not mine). He makes his money the gritty way, in order to provide for his beautiful wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two children, whether it's by kicking the crap out of thugs at the Copacabana or wagering $50 that he could eat more hot dogs than the fatso at the malt shop. His name gets out to Dr. Don Shirley, a black pianist who is about to embark on an arduous concert tour with his band from Manhattan to the deep south, and he needs a driver to accompany him. After impressing "Doc" with his no-nonsense demeanor, Tony gets the job and a prickly friendship is born.
Like any road movie, the conventions are as predictable as the food at a roadside diner or the multitude of gas-and-go's one will see on the highways and byways of the USA. Tony and Doc get on each other's nerves frequently. Tony's gruff and stubborn nature angers the sophisticated pianist, and everything from Doc's astute posture and mannered speech leads Tony to believe he's constantly being one-upped by him. But as their trip nears the bottom of the States, Tony sees just how dangerous the Jim Crow south is for a man like Doc, regardless of his position as a high-profile entertainer and a man with three PhDs.
I'd be lying if I didn't concede Green Book has certain charm. Mortensen's performance, as stereotypical Guido as it is, is oft superficially amusing and Ali knocks another weighty role out of the park. These two gifted actors are the glue holding an otherwise schmaltzy, overly sentimental premise together. Green Book always feels like it's on the outside of exploring a larger, more overarching problem. It doesn't want to confront why Tony would throw away two of his own glasses after two black servicemen drank from them, nor does it know any other tone aside from chummy. Even when we see the darker moments during this long road stint, they all end in convenience or emotional clap-traps (such as the bar scene).
After the great performances, what works the most about Green Book is the light comic touches, which admittedly function not simply as relief but as injections of warmth into a story ultimately predicated upon niceness. I believe that has a lot to do with Peter Farrelly (one of the men behind Dumb & Dumber, Shallow Hal, and There's Something About Mary) behind the camera. His aptitude for comedy ultimately makes the film's flirtation with gentle humor successful, as Mortensen and Ali do not traditionally take on comedic roles. Nonetheless, like their characters, they seamlessly sink into their roles and the soft humor of the project.
Green Book is another serviceable but all-around underwhelming entry in the subgenre I call "films that show minorities are capable of being decent human beings." While not as offensive as it is anemic, its subtle condescension and focus on Tony Lip rather than Doc show it's content on the status quo, and in a year that's afforded us such bold pieces of racially charged art such as BlacKkKlansman and Bodied, frankly, I've come to expect a lot more. So should you.