Green Book is directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, one of the two brothers behind such fare as Me, Myself & Irene and Dumb and Dumber. Don’t let the many glowing reviews that speak of a new direction for Mr. Farrelly fool you. His resume is splattered all over this film. The relationship at the center of this story could have been explored in a way that made important, if difficult, observations about race and class. In Farrelly’s hands, along with those of screenwriters Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, it’s merely a crowd-pleaser (most of the audience was into it, sadly) that relies on poorly thought out and occasionally offensive punchlines while settling for observations about race that would have seemed trite and cliché three decades ago. Ladies and gentlemen, here it is, the film most likely to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Dear God I hope to be proven wrong.
The narrative focuses on Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (screenwriter Nick Vallelonga’s father, played here by Viggo Mortensen), a New York City bouncer in the 1960s who accepts an offer to drive famed pianist Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through the Midwest and Deep South on a concert tour. Vallelonga, as written here, is a complete Italian stereotype: he’s racist, violent, dumb and sloppy. His early scenes offer clues to the level of writing we’ll be dealing with for the next two hours. Did I say clues? More like red flags. Little more than the surface will be scratched. As you can imagine if you’ve seen the trailer or even if you’ve just seen any other odd-couple type of comedy, Tony and Shirley will clash, but also become close. This is a film where you can see the ending coming from the first scene, because you’ve seen this movie before, and very little is surprising. Plenty of it, however, is problematic.
I am going to delve into spoilers and specific examples of plot points that I found troubling later in this review. If you wish to avoid spoilers, don’t worry, I’ll make it very clear before I go there that you should stop reading.
In general, this film suffers not because it tries hard to be likable, but because it is all about the journey through Tony’s eyes. I think it’s awesome that Nick Vallelonga had an opportunity to get a film made about his father, and it’s understandable that he would want that character to be flawed but lovable, which is clearly the goal despite Tony coming across as a stereotype. But in making the script all about his Dad, Vallelonga robs the audience of the opportunity to get to know Don Shirley better, and Don Shirley is a very interesting person. As a character though, he is never allowed time to exist onscreen on his own. Almost every one of his scenes involves Tony or is intended to serve Tony’s story and character development.
When Shirley does change as a result of one of these scenes, it’s usually in a way that conforms to a stereotype, including a cringe inducing scene where he discovers fried chicken is pretty good after Tony harasses him into trying food “your people” like. There are so many miscalculations made in this script, that it’s somewhat miraculous how Shirley still emerges as a three-dimensional character (the only one in the film). Much of the credit goes to Ali, who could win an Oscar for this role. It’s the only Oscar this film could win that I would be okay with. I just wish Shirley had been given a life of his own; a part of his arc that doesn’t include Tony, who does get a world of his own to inhabit during the film’s early scenes.
There is a lot about this film that I find problematic. As an odd-couple buddy film, it is a lot of fun, and the actors, especially Ali, are fantastic. It is a pleasure to watch the verbal sparring between these characters. I can understand why people are eager to see this film and are quick to embrace it when they see it. There are levels where this movie works, but in terms of avoiding or transcending stereotypes, it fails completely. This is not something that should be in the conversation for Best Picture, and it certainly shouldn’t be on any year-end top ten lists either.
SPOILER WARNING!!! STOP READING NOW IF YOU WISH TO AVOID SPOILERS!!!
In terms of Tony’s arc, we see him at the beginning of the film as someone who won’t even re-use glassware that black men drank out of. He throws the glasses away, but his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) puts them back in the sink when he isn’t looking. He also uses racist slang for Asians, tells sexist jokes about large breasted women and even claims to not be bothered by generalizations about Italian people during his fried chicken pitch to Shirley. By the end of the film, he is willing to give Shirley a hug, invite him into his home and let him use their dishes. The film ends before Dolores cleans the table post Christmas Eve feast (I’m assuming Tony wouldn’t lift a finger to help), so who knows if Shirley’s dishes end up in the garbage, but we get the feeling they probably don’t.
The problem with accepting this as a big change in Tony’s personality, or that he has overcome his racist tendencies, is that the only black person we see him being nice to is Shirley. Tony made one black friend, and according to this film, all is well. Other films this year, including BlacKKKlansman, dealt with race in a manner that acknowledged the possibility of being racist while still acting nice to or even feeling genuine respect towards one or two members of a race one otherwise despises. The message in Green Book, that friendship is THE solution to racism, just doesn’t hold up.
Also frustrating is how the middle section of the film is a series of plot points that seem to exist for no other reason than to point out how important it is for a white racist character to prepare a black character to deal with white racists. Think about everything wrong with that sentence, and what you come up with is a summary of the entire mid-section of the film. It’s telling that the Green Book itself, a travel guide the really existed and was intended to help black people safely navigate through all regions of the country, is given to Tony instead of Shirley. As the driver, it makes sense that Tony should be aware of the book, but we never see Shirley using it. It’s one of several ways the film constructs Tony as more aware of harsh realities than Shirley, which is absurd when that line of reasoning is used to pardon some of Tony’s ideas about race.
It is established early on that Shirley is an alcoholic. His tour contract includes the stipulation that a bottle of liquor be left in his hotel room after every show. When Tony comments that he would gladly assist with the drinking, Shirley says he will not need any help. Yet one night, Shirley visits a bar and is assaulted, causing Tony to intervene. Upon returning to the hotel, Tony scolds Shirley for visiting the bar and questions why he took such a risk. Shirley responds by asking if he would have been treated differently in a bar in Tony’s neighborhood. That’s a question worth exploring and we know the answer. The look on Tony’s face says it all. But Shirley’s decision still seems odd considering there is plenty of liquor in his hotel room. The script demands that he go to the bar though, so Tony can be a white savior by fending the attackers off and lecturing Shirley about his risky behavior.
As for the fried chicken scene, it is referenced again later in the film when Tony and Shirley attend a dinner arranged by a rich southern host, who shamelessly tells everyone at the table that he asked his maids and butlers what Shirley would enjoy eating for dinner. It is revealed that fried chicken was the answer. This is handled as a punchline. The reveal is followed by a reaction shot of Tony, who nods and smiles at Shirley. This was met by uproarious laughter by the audience around me, but I’m not sure what was so funny. Given the context, this scene was either intended to show that a racist guy knew how other racist guys would behave, or that Tony believed the maids and butlers all answered that fried chicken should be served, and therefore what he said to Shirley a few scenes earlier was accurate. Again, what is so damn funny about this? Nothing.
There are other issues that arise and I could go on with my examples, at which point I would have written a paragraph about every scene in the film. I’m not interested in writing a book about this film right now and you probably didn’t come here to read one. This is a film worth talking about, and in that respect it is a film worth seeing, but don’t just accept what it presents and let the conversation end there. This film doesn’t deserve the last word, especially in a year when films like BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Hate U Give and Sorry To Bother You have given audiences much more to think about.