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Green Book

Unbelievable! We finally get a weekend without any noteworthy wide releases and I get a bit more time to catch up. Today’s randomly selected entry on my massive backlog is Green Book, loosely based on the real-life story of Tony Vallelonga (here portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, who apparently gained fifty pounds from eating all the scenery) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The trailer made this one look like just another feel-good Oscar-bait movie… except that it was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly. Yes, one of the same Farrelly Brothers who wrote and directed such cinematic landmarks as Dumb and Dumber and Shallow Hal.

Given the talent involved, I’m kind of surprised the result was so boring. But I guess I should’ve expected it to be this stupid.

The basic gist is simple: Dr. Don Shirley is a musical virtuoso who’s been playing professionally since the age of 9. Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip) is a nightclub bouncer born and raised in the Bronx. Long story short, Don hired Tony to be his driver/bodyguard on an eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and the Deep South, ending on Christmas Eve of 1962.

Let’s start with Tony, as he gets the vast majority of screen time. (Perhaps not coincidentally, his own son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote and co-produced). Tony is impeccably street-smart, yet barely literate. He smokes at all times and he eats like goddamn Fred Flintstone. He has a massive chip on his shoulder, he’s unapologetically crude, he’s used to resolving problems through violence… look, there’s no getting around it: he’s an Italian stereotype. He’s a paper-thin Italian stereotype, his entire family is comprised of Italian stereotypes, and there’s absolutely zero effort at any kind of nuance. Though to Mortensen’s credit, at least he dives into the role with bombast and he seems to be having a lot of fun. Plus, the character has a code of honor and he cares a great deal for his family (most especially his wife, played by Linda Cardellini), and his brand of brutal honesty is endearing at times, so at least we have a reason to care about this guy.

Even so, it’s a disappointment that Tony got so much of the screen time, as if we needed the full two hours to learn everything about him. By contrast, Don Shirley is by far the more interesting and complex character. Here’s a black man in a constant fight to maintain his dignity against a world set on bringing him down. Too high-class and educated for most black people, yet his color means he can never be accepted by the upper-crust white society who pays for his music. He doesn’t eat fried chicken, he doesn’t listen to Little Richard or Aretha Franklin, and he’s not allowed into places that allow him access to anything else. Don is in a league of his own, lonely and left without family or fellows. Nobody — not even Don himself! — seems to know what he is or how to act around him.

I would’ve loved to know more about Don, with regards to where he came from and what makes him tick. And it’s not like there weren’t opportunities. For example, we watch as Don helps Tony compose beautifully poetic letters to Tony’s wife. Could Don be doing this as a way to cope with his own failed marriage? We never find out. Anything potentially interesting about this character is only hinted at and we never really get the full story.

Which brings me to the Green Book itself. The film only barely mentions the Negro Motorist Green Book as a guide to places throughout the country where people of color could safely eat or lodge. (Remember, this was back before Yelp was a thing.) In reality, any person of color traveling through the Deep South would have had the Green Book dog-eared and well-worn, kept in their pocket at all times. Instead, Don and Tony barely even look at the thing. Which is probably why they spend the entire second act blundering into bar fights, getting arrested, driving through sundown towns, and otherwise getting into the exact kind of potentially violent situations that the Green Book was specifically made to avoid! Hell, there’s one time when the characters have to be saved by a deus ex machina from goddamn Bobby Kennedy himself, which has to be some other kind of lazy storytelling.

There’s no getting around the fact that this movie is built on stereotypes. With the notable exception of Don (a character defined by his defiance of stereotypes), EVERY SINGLE ONE of these characters is a white racist stereotype, an Italian stereotype, a black stereotype, etc. I thought we were done with this shit. I thought that Hollywood in general had finally come to the realization that expressing racism through comically racist plot devices will never accomplish anything, as it requires no effort on the audience’s part to think “Well, I’m not that guy, so racism isn’t my problem!” What’s more, modern Oscar contenders have gotten around to addressing racism as a systemic problem that our entire country was built on, affecting every corner of our nation so intractably because every white person benefits from it in some way. This is a deeply nuanced and complex issue, and it’s greatly disappointing to see it portrayed in such a simplistic manner.

To be clear, I could forgive that if the paper-thin and borderline offensive stereotypes were at least used to make a point. Like maybe educating the audience about such forgotten ’60s-era institutions as the Green Book and why they were a thing. Speaking of missed opportunities, Don is touring with Oleg (played by Dimeter Marinov) — a Russian musician — in the middle of the fucking Cold War! You’d think that would be a goddamn huge deal, but it’s barely even mentioned aside from a throwaway line. Ditto for Tony’s Italian heritage, which would definitely mean his own history in dealing with racism.

The movie doesn’t address any of that. Instead, the filmmakers would rather spend time with Tony and Don, as our mismatched buddies on the road help each other to learn and grow. And to be entirely fair, the interplay between them is delightful, and it is undeniably sweet to see how the two men complement each other. In that regard, the movie works perfectly well as a light little racial buddy road comedy. But here’s the thing: That’s not good enough anymore.

Remember, this is the year of Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, and The Hate U Give. And those are only a few of the bold, insightful, hard-hitting movies we’ve seen in recent memory that directly address institutional racism and inspire action to end it. Compare that to this movie, which only ever aspires to be a feel-good, light and happy racial buddy comedy. A movie that does nothing to push the envelope, puts no effort into making any kind of definitive stand, and doesn’t present us with any characters (with one or two exceptions) recognizable as authentic human beings.

While I understand the appeal in lighter fare, it won’t inspire the kind of change we need right now, and — for better or worse — that’s where the bar is set. Moreover, it’s not impossible for a light and crowd-pleasing film to be a moving and inspirational treatise on racial equality (Hidden Figures already proved that), but it does at least require the courage to take a definite stand and challenge the audience on some level. We’ve got so many legitimately great movies about race right now, and we’ve got so much awful shit in the news right now, racial cinema has to go big or go home. And Peter Farrelly has never been the kind of filmmaker to go big.

While Green Book is funny and well-acted, with fantastic interplay between the two leads, it ultimately feels counterproductive. After so many intelligent and incisive films made by talented filmmakers of color, it seems like a step backward to have such a brain-dead and toothless movie about race from a white filmmaker. The movie desperately wants to be an inspirational movie about overcoming racial prejudice, but doesn’t have the guts or intelligence to actually confront racial prejudice in any new or relevant way, and so accomplishes basically nothing.

There are better Oscar contenders to choose from, and more enjoyable movies out right now. Don’t bother with this one.

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