A buddy comedy-drama set in 1960s racist America, Oscar Best Picture contender Green Book is this award season’s The Help, or Hidden Figures — a “feel-good” Hallmark-movie-level entertainment inspired by true tales from the Jim Crow era.
Lacking in subtlety, it may have worked better as a parody or a satire, as it only seems to understand racism on the surface
A genre for this sort of film should already be in existence — the plight of the African-American in the 1960s written by white folks and infused with melodrama. Racism 101 that is more condescending than genuine and utilizing competent, respected actors in caricature roles.
Green Book, like its genre classmates, is likeable in some areas, but is largely superficial and bordering on goofy. Lacking in subtlety, it may have worked better as a parody or a satire, as it only seems to understand racism on the surface. The director is Peter Farrelly, after all, one of the directing brothers of oddball comedies, such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Green Book is the kind of shallow cinema dressed in awards-season fashion.
The title Green Book is named after a 1960s directory of establishments for colored people traveling in America — listing places where they are welcome to dine, get their hair cut, buy their clothes, to lodge and so on.
In this film, Italian-American ex-bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (a bloated Viggo Mortensen) is given this book as a guide after he accepts a job as a chauffeur and bodyguard for a world-class African-American classical and jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, or Doc (Mahershala Ali), as he embarks on a concert tour. Imagine that — a white guy driving for a black man in the 1960s. Talk about scandalous. Talk about intriguing cinematic material. And it’s even based on a true story.
Much more “riveting” is the fact that Tony Lip is a racist. He is so disgusted by black folks that he disposes of a pair of perfectly fine drinking glasses because they’ve been touched by black-man lips.
So imagine this racist guy finding himself employed by an African-American, hired to drive the “inferior human specie” around America. But here’s the “deliciously entertaining” part — the black man is no ordinary man; Doc is a supremely rich and supremely educated man who lives above Carnegie Hall with an Indian butler/secretary. An unknown royalty in Lip’s world of mobsters.
The first time we meet Doc, he is swathed in long flowing fabric, riddled with jewelry, and sits delicately on a throne — a literal throne — right in his museum-like living room, to interview prospective drivers. Whether the real-life Don Shirley has a throne or not, the sight is laughable, almost an insult to the great Oscar-winning actor Mahershela Ali.
And so with a rich black man haughtily flaunting his superior status over prospective drivers as somewhat of a defense mechanism, you find yourself suddenly partial to Lip, a regular guy, relaxed and comfortable in his own skin — a loving husband and father who speaks his mind and punches you if you step on the line.
Immediately, you know that the two will develop a bromance while learning a thing or two about life while road-tripping through the south of the Mason-Dixon line. Cruising under wide open skies in a gorgeous turquoise 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, we observe the dynamics between the crass Lip who eats like a horse and the cultured and intellectual Doc who has never even eaten a fried chicken in his entire life.
It’s a film that tries to smash stereotypes while being oddly stereotypical itself. The film glows with pride as it humors and shocks the racist world that a black man like Doc has never tried fried chicken before, and wants us to laugh when he refuses to touch the crispy, juicy Kentucky Fried Chicken because it is “dirty” and there are no utensils to enjoy it. The lengthy scene is too contrived and patronizing to digest. And you guessed it right, Doc ends up enjoying the meat.
Ali and Mortensen, both earning Oscar nominations for their roles, are committed to their underwritten characters and have a fairly credible rapport. But Mortensen’s Tony Lip is not deeply racist, taking away any sense of initial threat or tension in the beginnings of his relationship with Doc.
Perhaps this is because the screenplay is co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real Tony Lip, therefore carefully portraying his Italian dad as a generally nice guy, endearing with his huge appetite and his poorly written but earnest love letters to his wife Dolores (the charming Linda Cardellini).
Doc, a kingly, austere man riding in the backseat, is neither blameless, with his prejudices against the poor and uneducated Italian man, trying his best to polish the rough edges of Lip — from his diction to his morals. The film wants us to find joy in this seemingly playful revenge; a highly educated and elegant black man belittling a crude white man.
So the film tours us in segregated South America, with title cards to mark the locations, giving us Lip’s POV as he observes the aloof and lonesome Doc in hostile territory. But we are not scared for Doc because he has a white savior.
While Tony is sometimes likeable in a shallow way, Doc is a little layered, saving the character from becoming cartoonish. Reserved, sheltered and raised in some strange realm of wealthy musical prodigies, you eventually empathize with him. He carries the burden of an outcast — alienated for his genius, culture, and sexual orientation. Here’s a character that is outrageously cursed in his era, and you do feel a little bit sorry for him as he points this out to Lip as he storms out into the rain (as dramatic moments call for), complete with a melodramatic score.
Green Book is not a terrible movie. But with its manipulative and self-conscious vibe, the absence of nuances and the hackneyed dialogue, it’s neither affecting nor provocative. It takes you on a facile road trip with plenty of cringe-y bumps along the way.
Perhaps the message would be more powerful, and the bromance between Lip and Doc more meaningful, if this were made as a downright comedy.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Out now in Philippine cinemas