There are two films that secured a best picture nomination at this year’s Oscars which, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, did not deserve their place. The first is Black Panther, the decent afro-centric superhero vehicle and a film of such weighty cultural significance that it’s hard to be too sour about its imminent inclusion. The second is Green Book, a good-if-not-great road trip movie which offers a comforting perspective on black/white race relations that’s easier to digest for mainstream audiences than a fibre-rich breakfast. To put it bluntly, it’s the kind of non-transgressive socially conscious effort the academy historically goes full-blown heart eyes emoji over.
Directed by Pater Farrelly of—no really— the Farrelly brothers fame, Green Book tells the relatively unknown story of Italian-American Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, a bouncer who worked briefly as a driver for African-American Jazz pianist Don Shirley during a tour of the deep south in the 1960s. New Yorker Vallelonga is, like many white men of his era, a prejudiced man. He throws out drinking glasses used by the black handymen in his home, uses clunky epithets when describing them and he’s not entirely comfortable to be seen working for person of colour like Shirley. It should be clear where this is all headed, with Vallelonga slowly coming to terms with his own failings in character as he even manages to impart a few words of working-class wisdom that Shirley takes in as their friendship blossoms.
This is such an agreeably heart-warming and well-acted vehicle that it was always going to make an impact with awards voters this season. The two central performances are undoubtedly superb. Viggo Mortensen gained around 50 pounds just to fill Vallelonga’s slacks and his commitment to the part goes beyond just the physical demands. The Danish-American Mortensen might be the least Italian looking men on earth so he deserves credit for inhabiting the bullish bravado of Tony Lip. His newly achieved, sizeable husk moves about with an overconfident chutzpa and the rough, simple-worded swagger of his line delivery has us forgetting any notion this guy ever played Aragon. In truth Mortensen might just be one of underrated chameleons of the last 20 years.
Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali might be even better as the erudite Don Shirley. It’s a terrific creation of his. The film views Shirley as man desperate to disprove the pernicious lie of white supremacy in the segregated deep south and Ali sets out to this with every aspect of his performance. The dignified diction of his well-read references, the surprising expertise of his real-life piano playing and even just the self-afforded regality of the manner in which he sits upright in the backseat of a car all contribute to this remarkable transformation. Don’t be surprised if Ali becomes the first male actor since Tom Hanks in 1994 to win two Oscars in such quick succession.
The script, co-written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Vallelonga’s real life son Nick is at its sharpest in the back-and-forth between Don and Tony. The dialogue zips best when it can lean into ‘odd couple’ tropes. Director Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin) reigns in the broader aspects of his comic background to give these scenes just the right amount of light-hearted, Cukor-esque confrontation. There are the odd sweet moments too, like the endearing Christmas dinner finale, that land with the intended weepy impact.
It would be a stretch to call this a great screenplay. One difficult fact to get passed is the feeling that what we are watching is a very comforting lie. Of course, creative licence is part and parcel of based-on-true-events filmmaking but the manner in which this is constructed is slightly troubling. Tony and Don’s friendship already feels manufactured even before you find out that Shirley’s living relatives—one of whom denies they were ever really friends—weren’t consulted in a film that was made with one of Vallelonga’s own children.
Scenes where Tony teaches Don about how to eat fried chicken and what contemporary African-American artists he should be listening to are certainly meant to deconstruct stereotypes. But they come off like Shirley is being ‘taught’ how to be black. Shirley here is someone doesn’t feel like he belongs in his race, even he’s proud of it, and that might be Green Book’s most sinister fabrication.
We’re given the inevitable scenes of the leads facing unfettered racism while touring of establishments in the American south and they’re affecting without ever really feeling threatening. There’s no real sense of dread, just snooty white people so explicitly racist that white people who regularly have implicitly racist conversations can feel better about themselves while watching. The not-very-subtle and saccharine trumps everything and so expect to hear a lot of “bustin ma balls here!” and lines like “It takes courage to change people’s hearts”.
Green Book is a feelgood movie, first and foremost, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s decent through and through, in the same ilk as past award-magnet weepies like The Blind Side and The Help. The kind of movies that viewed racism as a problem that can solved with black/white friendship.
In a post-Moonlight and post-#OscarsSoWhite world, Green Book has no right to be a best picture nominee, let alone winner, in the year of our lord 2019. At the start of this review I mentioned another film that shouldn’t be there come February based on its quality and there’s a reason. Black Panther, whatever your feelings on it, represents the Academy’s possible future. Green Book is a reminder of its forgettable past.