REVIEW: Green Book (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Universal Pictures

The following is a review of Green Book — Directed by Peter Farrelly.

Today, as I was sitting in the theater watching Green Book, less than ten hours after it had won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, I was briefly reminded of Mark Kermode’s thoughts on revisiting Moonlight after it had become an Oscar contender and then Best Picture winner. In his video, the British film critic remarked that he found himself seeing the film in a different light. It was no longer an indie hit — it had evolved and he saw different things in it. The film had risen to meet the expectations that the label ‘Best Picture winner’ brings with it.

However, it can go a different way entirely. Just like how a critical darling can resemble an artful masterwork much more clearly when seen in a certain context, a perfectly mediocre and harmless film that has, all of a sudden, been crowned as the Best Picture winner brings lofty expectations with it. As I saw Green Book, I realized that the film did not at all live up to its new title. It may, on its own terms separated from the ceremony, be a fine and well-meaning film, but a great Best Picture winner it is not.

Green Book is named after ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’, which was a guidebook for African-American travelers in Jim Crow law-era America. The film follows Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), a racist Italian-American bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub, as he is hired to protect and drive Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), a genius African-American pianist, around on his musical tour of the Deep South. On the road, the odd couple of Vallelonga and Shirley begin an unlikely friendship that changes them both.

Let’s start with what really works for Green Book. The strongest element in the film is without a doubt the exquisite performance delivered by Mahershala Ali. Ali is having a real moment in pop culture right now, and though I cannot say that I think this is his best performance — his work in Moonlight is still at the top for me — his work really elevates the film. Ali wrings everything he possibly can out of his role, which is hindered slightly by the character’s severely underexplored sexuality and background. Without Mahershala Ali, Green Book, honestly, would fall apart, to me.

Though Viggo Mortensen is very entertaining as Tony ‘Lip’, his performance is a broad caricature of an Italian-American man. His exaggerated voice and gesticulations were, to me, fairly distracting in the same way that Bradley Cooper’s accent was extremely distracting to me in A Star is Born. Also, I think Mortensen’s character is victim to uneven characterization.

In Mortensen’s case, I thought there were some inconsistencies with how racist and disrespectful he was in the scene with the African-American plumbers, and how he acts in pretty much every other scene in the film. This includes Lip and Shirley’s conversations in the car during which Mortensen’s character showcases an understanding and appreciation for African-American entertainers.

Director Peter Farrelly — yes, that’s one of the siblings behind Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin — has given us another one of his trademark buddy-comedy road-trips. This isn’t entirely new territory for Farrelly, except for the fact that this film revolves around deep and serious topics of race, class, and sexuality. Unfortunately, he and his co-screenwriters have wasted the potential depth of their story and, instead, given us a well-meaning but formulaic, predictable, and clumsy story.

Presented from the perspective that makes this a white savior narrative, Green Book is somewhat problematic and certainly superficial. I’ll admit that it has moments of good comedy but you would expect no less from a Farrelly brother. In the end, I think Farrelly would’ve found much more success with critics if his film had shown more of an interest in Dr. Shirley’s character.

Two things can be true at once. Green Book is, indeed, a lightweight feel-good film for a certain kind of audience that intends no harm. But Green Book is, in my opinion, also an incredibly tone-deaf film to champion in a year that gave us Black Panther, BlackKklansman, and so on and so forth. Would this film be treated differently going forward were it not the Best Picture winner? Undoubtedly, but that isn’t the reality. Green Book is the Best Picture winner, and it is tough for me to look at it any other way now. Green Book is elevated immensely by its pacing, some of its humor, and an outstanding performance from Mahershala Ali, but, at the same time, Farrelly’s film is formulaic and superficial. It isn’t necessarily a terrible film, but it is a bad choice for Best Picture right now.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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