Green Book started strong on the festival circuit late this year and has made a solid showing in not only word-of-mouth, but in popular reception. The period comedy feels very timely, crafting a tale of racial tensions and acceptance during a turbulent period. We need a crowd pleaser like this right now. However, is this truly an accurate representation? Or is the film another great example of well-crafted marketing? Here’s everything you need to know about Green Book.
Green Book follows the story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) when he’s hired to serve as a driver and bodyguard for musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) during a concert tour through the deep South during Christmas 1962. Peter Farrelly directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie.
If the name Farrelly sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. Children of the 1990s should be more than familiar with the director. Working with his brother Bobby Farrelly, Peter directed a host of movies which made the elementary schoolers of the era snicker: Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin to name a few. These men dominated the comedy scene in the 1990s. However, While Farrelly continued working into the 2000’s, he never quite equaled his early success.
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The strength in Green Book is largely in its stylistic presentation. The period comedy is a vibrant and dynamic film to watch, and is easily a crowd pleaser. Farrelly combines well with his talented creative team in crafting a feature that brings great cinematography, set design and soundtrack to the screen. It’s not hard for period pieces, particularly from this era, to feel overly glitzy, polished and even boring. Luckily, Green Book is the furthest thing from. The movie is a fun sit and seems to delight in depicting the vintage goodness of the early 1960s.
Unfortunately it is in an examination of tone and script which stands in the way of Green Book hitting the way it should. Scriptwriter Nick Vallelonga is the son of Tony Lip, and as a result it is he who dictates much of the course of the narrative. He is the figure of identification, and it is through which eyes that we observe the action. It is this which is the downfall of this narrative. Green Book could be so much better.
Green Book brings a stellar performance from the insanely talented Ali in a character which has tremendous depth. However, the narrative never takes the time to fully explore Dr. Shirley as an individual. Ali embodies a great man through which to explore segregation in the south. However, constructed as it is (and at best) Green Book can only see these events through a white lens. Ultimately, this feels problematic and does a tremendous disservice to Shirley as a man. Plot lines involving his alcoholism, homosexuality and a troubled family life are all set up, but aren’t explored. And tragically, much of this material would provide a far more compelling and emotional story than the one shown on screen. As such, Mahershala Ali is majorly under-utilized in a role which in the hands of a different writer would position the actor for another strong showing this award season.
While the film is well-intentioned, the narrative finds itself entering troubling territory through its handling of racial elements. Tony and his family are unapologetically, working class Italian… and Green Book wants you to know this. While the performances are fun, there is nothing subtle about this movie. The images created of Italians border on “That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!” territory. These are hardly well-crafted portrayals, instead coming closer to mafia movie stereotype. This treatment of the Italian characters leads toproblematic views on race as Tony equates being Italian in America to being black.
The film could explore prejudice as a bigger entity. We know that African Americans aren’t the only group to suffer injustices throughout history. However, the narrative doesn’t show Tony struggling with any outside prejudice. In fact, he’s rather privileged. As such, the late moment between Tony and Dr. Shirley feels tone deaf and dismissive of the musician’s humiliation. Things get all the more cringeworthy when Tony lectures Dr. Shirley that he’s “not black enough”. This conversation occurs deep into the third act. No, movie. Just No.
Does Tony learn anything from this conversation? Does he realize that his behavior is as troubling as those around him? Ultimately his arc is rather flat. The story builds a very passive racism into his character early on when he throws away some glasses that two African American plumbers drink from in the first act. However, he doesn’t join in when others are partaking in some far more verbal attacks. He watches far more violent racism play out in the south. In fact, much of his guilt comes merely through his passivity. Could the narrative mean more had Tony not been constructed through the loving and forgiving eyes of his son? Ultimately, if Tony’s perspective is going to dominate this narrative, he needs to learn more of a lesson than he does.
Period films are a struggle when contemplating how to analyze their problematic elements. It’s virtually impossible to judge previous eras for their thinking, as we didn’t live it ourselves. However, Green Book lays out, but consciously overshadows Dr. Shirley’s narrative, in the interest of spotlighting Tony’s more troubling thinking. The story pulls no punches about the racism of the era; however, it chooses to take more of an interest in how this changes Tony than Dr. Shirley. This is the heart of the film’s problem.
Ultimately, Green Book suffers from what it might have been. While stylistically and technically it is an absolute blast, it struggles narratively. The overall construction of the script is problematic, plunging the movie into some cringeworthy territory. Green Book seems to fancy itself a progressive and timely awards season film, but there are moments in the narrative which are unbelievably tone deaf and in truth, almost regressive.
Green Book is playing at theaters around the country now.
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